Completely careless, a world star walks on stage with an acoustic guitar under his arm. “We start in an unusual way,” he modestly tells the sold-out Afas Live, pointing to two cellists who take a seat behind him. “These are musicians from Ukraine. They are here to show solidarity with their country.”
Without any frills, singer Sting introduces a cerebral version of ‘Russians’, the world hit from 1985 in which he made the core threat of the Cold War tangible (“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”). After the last tones, two peace signs and the text: “Free Ukraine” appear.
He doesn’t want to waste any more words on the war, although the order of the subsequent hits by The Police and an almost forty-year solo career is telling: after ‘Message in a Bottle’ (“I’ll send an SOS to the world” ) follows ‘If You Love Somebody Set Them Free’.
The only thing that has grown old about Sting (70) is his worn-out bass guitar. Muscles bulge under the short sleeves of his blue, tight shirt. It is impossible to tell from the strategically cropped haircut command whether his blond hair has turned gray in the meantime. Okay, he lowers the highest squeak from ‘So Lonely’ and ‘Roxanne’ by an octave, but he sings and barks with incredible ease and musical flexibility.
And he does what he wants. “Time for new songs,” he says after the first salvo of hits. “That is part of the deal† I suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.”
Wearing a wireless headset, he leisurely strolls across the stage, sipping a cup of tea in between. Only a comfortable Chesterfield to relax in is still missing. The great thing is the ease with which he gives thousands of people the idea for two hours that they can watch a private jam session of friends and family: a daughter in the backing choir, his youngest son behind the drums, the oldest as support act and guest musician.
Advantage: it is a lot more fun than at the time with The Police, who fought for every centimeter and decibel on and off stage. Disadvantage: in such a cozy harmony model, the sparks do not really fly.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of March 28, 2022