The Police haven't played a major concert tour in 23 years, but that didn't stop the legendary trio from reaching far beyond tried-and-true versions of their '80s rock classics Monday at US Airways Center in Phoenix .
Bassist Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summer updated virtually 90 percent of their 20-song set list, with varying degrees of success.
At the best moments, including 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic', 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' and 'Can't Stand Losing You', the reunited bandmates added energy and complexity to songs that have been played nearly to death on classic-rock radio.
On the other end of the spectrum, 'Don't Stand So Close To Me', 'Roxanne' and 'So Lonely' were uneven and should have been left alone. The Police apparently didn't hear the largely negative response to their reworking of 'Roxanne' at this year's Grammy Awards, and they veered toward that ill-fated blueprint on Monday.
The British group is facing a quandary on this seven-month global outing: Fans are paying up to $250 per seat to hear the catalog that made the trio rich and famous, and many of those listeners want to relive the magic of two decades ago. They're not necessarily looking to be challenged by the song arrangements.
"If you want to tour every 25 years, you do it my way," said disappointed concertgoer John Rosenthal of Cave Creek after the two-hour show. "If you're touring every year or two, then do it your way."
Sting and his bandmates, less than eager to play the human jukebox, no doubt disagree.
As VH1 executive Rick Krim, who worked at MTV during the Police's heyday, recently said, "For their own sake, the Police are not trying to pretend it's 1982."
The concert started out on a strong, familiar note. After warming up the audience, which was weighted toward fans 35 and older but included a smattering of curious teens and 20-somethings, with Bob Marley's 'Get Up, Stand Up', the trio started out with a Copeland bang of the gong and a straightforward take on 1979's 'Message In a Bottle'.
Sting, 55, outfitted in a white, sleeveless shirt, pendant, dark pants and lace-up boots, was in fine voice on the opening song and throughout the evening. Summers, 64, worked his Fender Stratocaster with his usual dexterity, and Copeland, 54, wearing a headband and wire-rimmed glasses, attacked his drum kit with even more ferocity than he did decades ago.
The crowd responded with an impressive roar, as it did in several other spots of the well-paced set.
The ever-popular rocker 'Synchronicity II', followed, with the major change being an extended lead to showcase the skill of Summers, who ventured into jazz, New Age and ambient music after the Police broke up.
"It's nice to be back in Phoenix. We've been coming here for many, many years," Sting said, perhaps blurring the line between Police tours and his successful solo career.
The singer later mentioned that he had climbed Camelback Mountain at 6 a.m. Monday. (Both he and Copeland are in great physical shape.)
Hints of what was to come emerged in another favorite, 1979's 'Walking On the Moon'. An lengthy instrumental jam spotlighted Sting, who walked all the way around the oval stage to wave at fans who watched his backside most of the night. The singer then repeated the phrase "Walking back from your house" over and over and over as Summers dabbled in some spacey guitar. The crowd enjoyed a Marley-like call-and-response with Sting.
The wide-open stage, with video screens hung high above, emphasized that the night would be about music, not bells, whistles, flames and fireworks.
A sped-up version of 'When the World Is Running Down, You make the Best of What's Still Around' started off shaky but was rescued when Copeland's drum mastery guided the song to a funky, danceable climax.
Throughout the night, Copeland dazzled both behind his drum kit and when he migrated to a wall of percussive toys and an array of kettle drums. He remains among rock's drumming elite.
Summers had his moments, but somehow seemed under-utilized. He was given the spotlight in measured doses, including a wailing solo during one of the night's most well-executed songs, 'Driven to Tears'.
Sting, of course, had much of the spotlight, and he did a decent job of trying to keep the entire 18,000-plus in attendance involved.
In contrast, one of the night's low points came when the orginally-defiant 'Don't Stand So Close To Me' got muted treatment, courtesy of a darker arrangement of chords.
Other missteps included a lackluster take on 'De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da' and rote vocals by Sting on the first encore song, 'King of Pain'.
These were the only two instances when the front man's singing seemed to say, "These are two songs I've just grown weary of performing." To his credit, Sting maintained a smiling enthusiasm through even the most ancient hits the rest of the night.
The trio achieved mixed results as it challenged concertgoers by varying rhythms and including lengthy bass and guitar solos on the reggae-heavy 'The Bed's Too Big Without You'.
Extra instrumentation came together just fine in the rocking 'I Can't Stand Losing You', and a slower, more mellow approach to 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' also worked. The crowd took over vocals for Sting in the middle of the latter.
An extended encore version of 'Every Breath You Take' provided a nice moment for the couples in the crowd, who swayed and happily echoed Sting's chants of "Whoa-oh-oh" in the middle.
Despite all the tweaking of songs, the concert started and ended with nothing-fancy versions of Police favorites. A rocking version of the raw early track 'Next to You' wrapped things up, as if the Police were trying to hedge their bet.
Like the recent ending of HBO's "Sopranos" series, this concert and tour promise to spark a debate between those who want their art in a clear-cut, predictable form and those who are open to artists putting sometimes-flawed spins on their work.
The Police certainly could please more fans by playing at least a few more songs closer to their original form, which would be a wise move that doesn't require abandoning their overall desire for artistic evolution.
But like David Chase, creator of the "Sopranos," Sting, Copeland and Summers ultimately get the final cut.
Opening the show was Fictionplane, a trio led by bassist Joe Sumner, son of Sting (who was born Gordon Sumner).
The younger Sumner, who sings in a voice mirroring his father's, did a good job of getting the crowd to overcome its suspicion about how his 4-year-old band landed its gig.
He and guitarist Seton Daunt and drummer Pete Wilhoit are trying to put a more modern spin on the power trio, and their set showed promise.
Most Police-like and most well-received was the reggae-rocking single, 'Two Sisters'.
© The Arizona Republic by Larry Rodgers