Mediocre Merchant and the Masterful Sting...
Three years ago, playing Walnut Creek on 10,000 Maniacs' final tour, Natalie Merchant put in an onstage plug for the N.C. Museum of Art.
Saturday night, opening for Sting, she put in a plug for the weekend dog show at the Civic Center. Sad to say, that was the perfect metaphor for the relative quality of the two shows. Merchant has a lovely voice, seems to mean well, espouses worthy causes - and boy, is she a crushing bore nowadays.
Especially compared with Sting, who blew her away with ease in front of a near-sellout crowd. Her hourlong set was ambient and noodlehead-ish. Her mediocre seven-piece backup band was apparently under strict instructions not to push or challenge the star in any way. The musicians obliged, hardly budging from the same narcoleptic mid-tempo groove all night (except to slow it down).
They hit bottom with 'These Are Days', rendered in a ragged calypso arrangement. It went on interminably and sounded as if Merchant were playing with a bad Jimmy Buffett cover band.
Sting, on the other hand, had a killer ensemble versatile enough to handle anything he threw at them: two horn players, ace jazz keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, a young and hungry guitarist, and a drummer who did a credible Stewart Copeland impersonation. They added lots of nice flourishes, such as the 'Gangsta's Paradise' Coolio riff Kirkland contributed to 'Mad About You'.
Sting's current album, 'Mercury Falling', is his lightest-toned work since the early Police days, and Saturday's 90-minute set had a similar feel. This was not the Amnesty International set, with Sting ponderously intoning Russians over a forest of upheld cigarette lighters.
Instead, it had most of 'Mercury Falling' and enough oldies to make anybody happy. The new material held up fine - even his faux-country songs 'I Hung My Head' and 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying'. But it was the old ones that really engaged the crowd.
By now, it's apparent that Sting is a song craftsman on a par with anybody else in the pantheon. 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' sounded fresh as ever, 15 years on, even with Sting trying to ruin it with a cornball vocal. 'Demolition Man', 'Roxanne' and the inevitable encore version of 'Every Breath You Take' all hit the mark as well.
Walking out afterward, I heard three different people whistling different songs Sting had played. Yes, they stick with you.
(c) The Raleigh News & Observer by David Menconi