Peter Gabriel and Sting at Milwaukee's Summerfest
When I saw Peter Gabriel and Sting perform at the Marcus Amphitheater in ’87 and ’88, respectively, to imagine seeing them perform together 29 years later with my adult twin girls (and my sister!) in attendance would have been way too bizarre to contemplate. I could barely be expected to attend class on a regular basis much less successfully raise two children (and now very close on the third). How cool that both musicians are still around on tour, but cooler still that they managed to pull off a very entertaining and fulfilling show as a double bill. It could have been oh so lame, but it was anything but.
Though the stars shared the number of songs performed, I couldn’t help but think that this was a Peter Gabriel show with Sting in tow, and I have to give credit to Mr. Sumner for being such a gracious musician on stage. Gabriel opened with “Rhythm of the Heat,” a track I never expected to hear live in my lifetime, and the power exhibited during the finale of the tune was such that even Sting’s powerhouse “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” that followed sounded thin by comparison. That’s not a knock on Sting. That’s a recognition that when it comes to majestic, heartfelt performances, Gabriel likely has no equal.
Following the two opening numbers, Gabriel, after a joking reference to the body shapes of the two singers (yeah, Sting wins, and beats just about every male in attendance), announced that the bands and the stars themselves would commingle throughout the evening. Up to fourteen musicians graced the stage, with several staying put for most of the show while others exited and entered or combined, and not always with allegiance to their usual band. From where I was sitting, I at first thought that Sting was handling all the bass parts, but then from behind a large pole that obstructed part of the stage, I saw the unmistakable silhouette of Tony Levin as Gabriel began 1992’s “Digging in the Dirt,” and my girls were equally thrilled to see David Rhodes, the guitarist they loved watching on the Secret World Live DVD that was on constant rotation during much of their early childhood.
Sting surprisingly eschewed much of his stronger solo tracks in favor of his Police catalog, focusing on several deeper cuts, including “Invisible Sun,” “Driven to Tears” “Englishman In New York,”and “Walking in your Footsteps,” and as cool as it was to hear those songs, when held up against Gabriel’s “Red Rain,” “San Jacinto” and “Secret World,” they didn't have the same impact. All told, only six Sting solo numbers were performed, with Gabriel taking the reins on a Beck-inspired “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.” It would have been cool to hear a few others (“I Hung My Head,” anyone?), but again, to Sting’s credit, he leaned on several tunes that he knew would please the crowd, including the overplayed but still pretty damn fun “Message in a Bottle,” and “Roxanne,” the latter morphing into a lovely verse of the Bill Withers tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone,” the only song not penned by either of the evening’s stars.
The most surprising inclusion of the night was Sting’s brief cover of “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight,” a track from the Peter Gabriel-led Genesis catalog that the original singer has avoided for decades. I find it odd that Gabriel is unwilling to give a gentle nod to his prog-rock past while still playing old songs like “Solsbury Hill” and “Games Without Frontiers,” but oh well, Sting took it upon himself to get the job done!
As strong as most of performances were, the weakest tune of the evening by far was Gabriel's "Love Can Heal," a new track written for the recently slain Jo Cox. Perhaps this tune would have worked better in a different setting, but to me it simply isn't a good song, and I also found it interesting that Gabriel played not one note from his album Up, another example of how underwhelming the exceedingly nonprolific composer's songs have been since his album Us.
I admit I was moved to tears during two numbers: first, the booming climax of “San Jacinto,” the song Gabriel opened up with when I saw him back in 1987 as a wee 19 year-old, the same age my daughters will be in a month’s time – this was simply too much for me to handle; and then again on the climax of “Don’t Give Up,” a song I don’t particularly care for, and yet again, the song conjured up a complexity of emotions that went way beyond the song itself. Perspective matters with these things. Hearing Paul McCartney sing “Yesterday” means so much more today than it meant three decades ago, and a sixty-six year old Gabriel singing “Whatever may come/and whatever may go/That river’s flowing” meant more to this nearly-fifty year-old writer last night than it did in 1987.
That river’s flowing, indeed.