Last time Sting played South Florida, in July 2010 at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach, he was backed by the 50-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and it was great. No, it was breathtakingly magnificent, actually. But on Saturday night at a sold-out Fillmore Miami Beach, the frontman for The Police proved he's just as mesmerizing with a mere five-piece backing band.
Sting was in town - and is still here for a second show Sunday night Nov. 13 - for his Back to Bass tour, featuring his greatest hits "stripped-down and raw, as they haven't been played in years." The tour is in support of his new release "Sting: 25 Years," which celebrates his solo career and which hit the streets Sept. 27. Thankfully, though, in concert he throws in a few Police classics.
Clad humbly in a tight gray T and jeans - and hair cropped so close he was nearly bald - Sting (on bass, for a welcome change) started the night with the country-tinged "All This Time," powered by acoustic guitar, mandolin, and sultry backup singer Jo Lawry. Afterward, Sting exclaimed, "It's great to be back in Miami - everybody looks like they just had sex, or are about to have sex. And some are having sex right now!"
The crowd then exploded when the band kicked into "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," during which Sting - who recently turned 60, but looks more like 40 - absolutely nailed every high note. And the band didn't miss the keyboards from the studio version one bit.
In keeping with the stripped-down theme of the tour, the set was sparse, with artful white spotlights against an all-black background. The music, however, was rich and complex. The Police hit "Demolition Man" rocked like a train careening out of control, with beautifully dissonant screeching from two violins replacing the original recording's synths; the country twang of "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" and "I Hung My Head" was tastefully low-key; the pleasantly haunting "Fortress Around Your Heart" showed off some of Sting's best bass work; the feel-good country melody of "Fields of Gold" and the slow, swaggering blues of "Sacred Love" lulled the crowd into blissful reverence; and the rollicking "Love Is Stronger Than Justice" and "Never Coming Home" inspired standing ovations for some sick fiddle solos by Peter Tickell.
Some complaints, and it must be stressed that there were very few: On "Driven to Tears," the guitars lacked both the satisfying, ringing mystery of Andy Summers' genius, and the drummer didn't even attempt Stewart Copeland's intricate fills; the slow, swaggering blues of "Sacred Love" ended up seeming as long as Sting's legendary lovemaking prowess; and some eyes began to glaze over during "Heavy Cloud No Rain" and "Inside."
But that's what encores are for. A spiritually uplifting "Desert Rose," which inspired dancing in the aisles; an extended version of "Every Breath You Take," on which Sting nailed the chorus' difficult high notes; the raw garage-rock of "Next to You"; and the compelling "Message in a Bottle," with Sting alone on acoustic guitar imploring the willing crowd to sing the chorus; sent everyone home in awe.
Would the crowd have gone completely nuts if the entire set list were huge hits, heavily weighted toward old Police standards? Most likely. But Sting is one of those rare treasures with the ability to transfix any audience, no matter what he sings.