In a stripped down format that was as simple as the t-shirt and jeans he wore onstage, Sting delivered a powerful and satisfying set at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Monday night. Over the course of two hours and three encores, he and his all-star five-piece band romped through 20 or so of his greatest hits, drawing as freely on material from his time in The Police as from his copious solo output. In what has been billed as the “Back to Bass Tour,” Sting stood front and center throughout the evening, playing brilliantly and singing with passion. With no elaborate stage set and only the most basic of lighting effects, the emphasis was where it belonged, on the stunning craft and soul of this artist’s considerable songbook. The band, which featured Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, David Sancious on keyboards, Dominic Miller on guitar, Peter Tickell on violin (and sometimes mandolin), and Jo Lawry singing back-up vocals, could have put on quite a show all by themselves, but from the outset it was clear that Sting would be driving the whole way. Without once showing off just for the sake of it, he ran through a whole repertoire of sounds and techniques on the instrument. One minute he was soloing in a conventional playing style; the next he lifted the bass high on his chest and gripped it firmly with his right hand while plucking out pizzicato riffs on the open strings with his left. In a particularly dazzling sequence, Tickell challenged the leader to a frenzied duet, literally chasing him all the way across the long diagonal of the Bowl’s open stage.
Given the stellar opportunity to both enjoy and reflect on the accomplishment of this musician, it was easy to see what has made both Sting and The Police so enduring. No other musician from the reggae-loving 1980s succeeded in channeling the spirit of the great Bob Marley as effectively as Sting. His clean tenor voice and feeling for the swaggering bass pulse of Jamaica lend many of his hits their distinctive bounce and lilt. He sang “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Driven to Tears,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Roxanne,” and even “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” as if these classics were written yesterday, and revved up such solo numbers as “Englishman in New York” and “The Hounds of Winter” to the same pitch, never losing the thread of the evening’s narrative, and bringing the crowd along with him every step of the way.
By the time he was finished with the third encore, even the most die-hard of Sting fans were too well satisfied to resist when he said his final goodbye. The consensus among the ebullient crowd exiting through the Jerry Garcia Glen was that this was one of the best Bowl shows in recent memory.