SHOW REVIEW

Sting and Lennox a fine pair...

The teaming of Sting and Annie Lennox - such a natural pairing of sounds and sensibilities it's a wonder it took so long to arrive - comes at a most propitious time.

Rather than standing out as a crowning adult-pop achievement amid a field of few, their matchup materializes in a year crowded with first-rate turns from other '80s-bred icons and hit makers - Prince, Madonna, Morrissey, Tears for Fears. Even Phil Collins has returned, if only to say, ''Hello, I must be going.''

Thus, these striking figures from the Police and Eurythmics face heightened scrutiny from concert-goers regularly dipping into nostalgia at three figures a pop. Tuesday night, in the first of two sold-out shows at the Hollywood Bowl (with a rerun Friday at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater), these agelessly sexy fashion plates would not only have to live up to their reputations, they'd also have to compare favorably to their peers.

It should come as no surprise, however, that such consummate pros would rise to the occasion, delivering sterling (if somewhat predictable) performances that echoed their former greatness while highlighting their current vitality.

Sting's set, actually, was redemption for the stiffness of his Pantages gig earlier this year, which felt passionless and oh-so-serious. That small- venue trek now seems like the proper outing for 'Sacred Love', spotlighting that bland album. This leg, though under the same banner, adheres more to the lyric on a red baby-doll tour T-shirt: ''There's no religion but sex and music.''

Or ''religion from Victoria's Secret,'' as Sting said of his new title track, treated here to a sensual backdrop, a lustier groove and a booty-jiggling erotic dancer that, all told, carried with it the distinct feel of Madonna's peep-show video for 'Open Your Heart'.

It wasn't the only time the guy with the swept-back blond mane who purportedly digs multiple-partner tantric lovin' got so randy - albeit in an aloof, European, I'm-about-to-be-53 way. Save for 'Fragile', thankfully moved out of its show-closing position, and a few portraits of personal isolationism - the social ennui of 'Synchronicity II', the alienation of 'Englishman in New York', the pained narratives 'Dead Man's Rope' and 'Never Coming Home' - Sting gave himself over to some of his most popular (not necessarily best) songs of love and longing, tenderness and faithfulness.

Moments of hearty ebullience ('Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic') were balanced by softer reflection ('Fields of Gold'). Entries filled with lingering self-doubt ('Seven Days', 'Roxanne') later were resolved by a counterpunch of the permanently misconstrued 'Every Breath You Take' and the glorious 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You'.

This much was in place months ago at the Pantages; what was missing were muscle and some chops-flashing jams. It's an ego-fueling fact, but Sting is always sharper and stouter when staring down a stadium-size crowd; intimacy, as has often been illustrated, tends to make him somber. Indeed, his whole performance seemed transfused with fresh blood - his singing more richly sonorous, his band flexing unforeseen power along with proven dexterity. My complaints are brevity and sameness, be it lyrical (his colorful word craft has turned crushingly repetitive in spots) or structural (some of these chestnuts should be temporarily retired in favor of neglected lesser-knowns).

And I have but one beef with Ms. Lennox, whose incredible voice is rapidly replacing Aretha's as pop's pre-eminent force of nature, not merely the greatest female vocalist of her generation.

The impressively lithe Lennox, who hits her half-century mark on Christmas, simply sings the bejesus out of anything she tackles, bringing her most impassioned emphasis to lovelorn midlife cries while adding subtle Freddie Mercury moves for dramatic effect. Note how she exemplified the exhausted despair of the profoundly soulful 'Cold'. Its opening: 'Come to me, run to me, do and be done with me.' Lennox sang it as if feeling every word stab her in the heart.

Whether belting 'Diva' favourites, recent gems or a helping of Eurythmics bits, Lennox routinely reached the emotionally raw core of her music, her nerves-exposing performance matching her relatively naked appearance, drastically dressed-down yet still sprinkled with flair.

My quibble is with her band, which didn't click as it should have for 'Missionary Man', though its take on 'I Need a Man' suggests it still can.

And, yes, Sting and Annie joined forces once. Look elsewhere for a spoiler. Suffice to say it had heat enough to be the modern equivalent of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner trading licks and looks at Live Aid.

With both acts bringing their A games, what could have been a bloated bore wound up taking its deserved place among this year's smashing returns. God knows we'll likely never see this again. Heck, we likely won't see Annie again until the next Eurythmics reunion in, oh, five more years? Ten?

(c) The Orange County Register by Ben Wener

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