Peter Gabriel and Sting last toured together in 1986 and 1988 as part of a string of Amnesty International benefit concerts. Last night, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, the pair kicked off their new Rock, Paper, Scissors tour with a marathon set brimming with exuberant collaborations.
In fact, it’s more precise to call this a co-mingling tour, not a co-headlining tour, because both artists (and their respective bands) collaborated throughout the two-hour-and-40-minute set. Sting even lightly characterized the night as an “organic battle of the bands,” even though the competition was clearly friendly.
The show started off with both groups backing Gabriel on “The Rhythm of the Heat,” the first track from 1982’s Peter Gabriel. Having two drummers and a percussionist on the stage was a boon for the song, which felt like a volcano simmering and then exploding. Sting then bounded onstage for a buoyant take on his solo hit “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” which featured additional and cutting flourishes from fiddle player Peter Tickell.
Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers” was another early standout: Sting and Gabriel not only shared lead vocals, but they harmonized together on the chorus, their voices blending and weaving around one another perfectly. That push-pull matched the song’s strident, prey-stalking rhythmic backbone: In tandem with the arrangement, Sting and Gabriel marched across the stage and around each other, like a toreador circling a bull. “Solsbury Hill” also benefitted from the collaboration: Couples danced in the section of arena seats behind the stage — and Gabriel himself galloped around the stage — as both bands ran through the folk-flecked, uplifting song.
At times, the concert’s song swapping was even more pronounced and intriguing. Sting did an admirable job taking over lead vocals on Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey,” which featured skittering electronic currents reminiscent of drum ‘n’ bass. As a preface to the Police‘s “Message in a Bottle,” Sting delighted the crowd by singing a brief, nearly a cappella snippet of Genesis‘ “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.” A few songs later, a laid-back take on the Police’s “Walking in Your Footsteps” segued right into him tackling Gabriel’s equally funky “Kiss That Frog,” a tune highlighted by David Sancious’ keyboard wizardry. Gabriel and his band later returned the favor by transforming Sting’s upbeat “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free” into an ominous, Pink Floyd-reminiscent prog dirge with rich, soulful overtones. At the end of the song, Gabriel whispered “Set them free” and “Let ’em go” with barely concealed creepiness.
n other spots, however, these collaborations were subtler. For the Police’s “Invisible Sun,” Gabriel and Sting band member Jo Lawry huddled stage right at Gabriel’s piano/keyboard setup and added surging backing vocals. And during Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” Gabriel added mincing, smoky vocals on several verses, a perfect match for Sting’s jauntier delivery. Throughout the set, each musician (and his band) moved on and off the stage seamlessly — sometimes so stealthily that it was a surprise to see who might be contributing to a song. That’s a testament to the weeks of rehearsal they’ve spent preparing for this tour, time and dedication which absolutely made a difference to the night’s flow and balance.
Both Sting and Gabriel did periodically do songs with their own respective bands, however. Gabriel’s song picks included fan favorites “Secret World” and “Darkness”; during the moody, ambient latter, Gabriel walked around the stage with a camera in his face, making the predominant crowd screen feature a stark, black-and-white close-up of his visage. “Red Rain” was absolutely massive and thundering, with prominent piano and Gabriel’s gravelly voice conveying appropriate gravitas, and “Big Time” was a colorful, funky burst of energy boasting some of the night’s coolest production flourishes: stage lights and film footage of band members bathed in 3-D-like effects.
Sting’s set was loaded with Police hits — highlighted by a Steely Dan-esque take on “Driven to Tears,” with red-hot guitar work from Dominic Miller, and a jazz-combo take on “Roxanne” with an interlude of “Ain’t No Sunshine” — but he too pulled out a rare solo cut, with great success: Mercury Falling‘s “The Hounds of Winter,” on which Lawry howled and trilled like a siren breaking glass. Sting’s portion of the night also had subtle political and social commentary; in particular, he gave particular pointed emphasis to the “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” lyric, “You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians/ They all seemed like game show hosts to me.”
On a somber note, Sting also referenced the Orlando mass shootings, and said the “way we can counter unspeakable cruelty and mindless stupidity is empathy and solidarity,” before doing a moving, Spanish guitar-inflected version of “Fragile.” Later in the night, Gabriel told a story about meeting a young activist who was thinking about going into politics — and revealed it was British MP Jo Cox, who was assassinated last week. He then dedicated a stunning, somber new song to her, which featured minimal percussion and a breathy, keening chorus repeating the phrase “love can heal.”
That revelatory moment gave way to a percussion-heavy, hip-swiveling “Desert Rose” and then everyone again coming together for an upbeat, optimistic version of Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” Every musician onstage was moving and grooving — even Sting, in the back ceding the spotlight to Gabriel, by adding harmonies with the rest of the auxiliary singers. The entire concert was like this: no ego and no preciousness about the music from any corner of the stage — just seasoned musicians passionate about performing and transforming.
That joy shone through on the encore of “Every Breath You Take,” another joint production, and the night-closing, Technicolor horn explosion “Sledgehammer.” This closer was exuberant fun, featuring charming choreography — onstage right, Gabriel pointed at Sting and the auxiliary vocalists at stage left, and mimed pulling the troupe toward him, as if they were on a piece of string — and plenty of goofy, unaffected singing and stage moves. The musicians and audience alike clearly having a blast — a fitting end to a night where even familiar songs played hundreds of times felt and sounded invigorated and refreshed.