The freedom to go back in and second-guess those old Police arrangements was clearly a major condition of Sting going back on the road with the band he swore he’d never reunite.
That much was obvious from the opening notes of the opening song of the reunited trio’s second stop in Phoenix Saturday night at the Cricket Wireless Pavilion – a haunting arrangement of "Bring on The Night" with Andy Summers raining feedback over the delicate Spanish guitar line Sting was finger-picking on what certainly appeared to be the world’s tiniest guitar.
Those elements may have been there on Reggatta De Blanc, but the moodier context of the new arrangement really drew them out on Saturday.
"Wrapped Around Your Finger" was even more intriguing, with Stewart Copeland adding xylophone and exotica-flavored percussion over a drum loop.
Copeland also added xylophone to "King Of Pain," another song that benefited greatly from a more subdued approach. Other highlights found them sticking closer to the old arrangements. "Message In A Bottle," "Can’t Stand Losing You," "So Lonely" and a late-night "Next To You" were all spirited blasts.
What didn’t seem to work so well was the wealth of exhaustive guitar leads.
Andy Summers was among the more inventive lead guitarists on Top 40 radio back in the day, but much of what he played in Phoenix seemed closer in spirit to Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Another noticeable difference didn't have as much to do with anyone's artistic vision as it had to do with someone backing down from notes that may have been a little easier to hit back in the '80s. If he'd substituted decent hooks, it might have been OK, but several songs were clearly missing something -- "When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What's Still Around," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" and "Roxanne" in particular (although "Roxanne" still sounded great).
Sting can work a crowd, though. Early in the set, he joked, "I was a little worried because of the cold, you wouldn't come out. But I suppose it's a luxury for you."
And he certainly seemed to be having more fun than his band mates. Maybe he caught it from Elvis Costello.
A bearded Sting came out to share the mike on "Alison" midway through a brief but brilliant opening set by Costello, who strolled on stage and dove headfirst into the raunchy blues-punk riff of "Stella Hurt," one of several highlights plucked from this year’s model, Momofuku.
His Imposters could have held their own against the White Stripes as Pete Thomas pounded out the beat and Steve Nieve reasserted his claim on best organist ever while Costello attacked his guitar in a solo that squeezed out raw emotion like Neil Young with something left to prove.
The intensity never wavered, finding an obvious outlet in songs as fast and furious as "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio," "(I Don’t Go Want To Go To) Chelsea," an anthemic "(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and Momofuku highlights "Go Away," "No Hiding Place" and "American Gangster Time."
"Watching The Detectives" had its own film-noirish urgency, and the ballads were, in some ways, even more intense.
"Flutter & Wow," another Momofuku highlight, could have been mistaken for a great lost Otis Redding song, and "Alison" was great, while "Everyday I Write The Book," his first of only two Top 40 singles, was completely reinvented as a stunning Memphis soul song.
The arrangement was amazing, building to a soulful climax, stopping on a dime and then bringing it down to build it all back up again. It proved the unexpected highlight of a set that found Costello still firmly entrenched at the top of his game, with one eye on the past and both feet planted firmly in the future.