It was obvious from the opening crash and sprint of “Message in a Bottle” — the first number of the Police’s August 1st show at Madison Square Garden — that two ingredients missing from Sting’s solo life for the past two decades have been a drummer that plays too fast and a guitarist with elastic ideas about harmonics and an aversion to conventional chords.
There would be no Police reunion this year if Sting had not willed it. The band made him a superstar, and he has never been embarrassed to wield that clout, even as his own records have explored worlds far away, and even a few centuries back, from the lean power-trio dynamics of the Police’s Econoline-van years. But at the Garden, the group’s first New York City show since 1983, Sting was not the main attraction. He was, with drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, one-third of an extraordinary rhythm-and-hit-chorus machine. Copeland and Summers needed Sting to say yes to this tour. But Sting needed them to make his greatest hits — “Roxanne,” “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Synchronicity II,” even that maypole-dance hook in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” — boom and glow like rock again.
Frankly, it was hard to tell how much of the new minutiae I saw Sting drilling into the old arrangements, during the Police’s Vancouver rehearsals three months ago, had survived the first two months of concerts. Two songs from early set lists, “Spirits in the Material World” and “Murder by Numbers,” didn’t even make it to New York. But there was no missing the transformative drama of Copeland’s tom-tom bombs in “Driven to Tears” and Summers’ shivering-Hendrix screams in the Jamaican galactica of “Walking on the Moon.” There isn’t much of a song in “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” just white-reggae anguish and the unison gunfire of the vocal, guitar and drums in the chorus, just before the last two words. But that rat-a-tat erupted in the Garden’s echo like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Sting’s high, keening voice was an enduring miracle in itself. He has not had much occasion on recent solo records to push it that hard, and that far up, but he did not coast through first-Police-album grenades such as “So Lonely” or “Truth Hits Everybody” in noticeably lower keys or tempered speeds. And in the constant sing-along by the crowd, you could hear Sting’s triumph as the Police’s dominant songwriter: how he used jazzy flourishes and rhythmic turnarounds that broke most Top Forty-radio laws to make punk-driven, pop-wise platinum. The Police were the biggest band of the New Wave era; Sting delivered the songs to get them there.
He still sings many of them in his own shows, often in different, more careful form. But at the Garden, he played the songs with Copeland and Summers the way the three invented them together — with arresting force.