There were bumps along the road to Citizens Bank Park for the Police, who played outdoors in South Philadelphia on Thursday for the first time since performing at JFK Stadium at the peak of their popularity in 1983.
Back at the Grammy Awards in February, when Sting, guitarist Andy Summers, and drummer Stewart Copeland first reunited to do their beloved tale of a boy besotted with a prostitute, "Roxanne," the trio sounded thin, and the high notes were out of reach of the 55-year-old Sting.
And in May, after the band's second gig of the tour in Vancouver, Copeland issued a harsh critique on his personal Web site of the band's performance. He called it "unbelievably lame" during "Message in a Bottle," and wrote that a botched song-ending leap made Sting look like a "petulant pansy instead of the god of rock."
Just two weeks ago, as the closing act at Live Earth at Giants Stadium, the Police disappointed again, with a meandering, borderline-listless showing that was more about self-satisfying jamming than providing a cathartic ending to a ginormous global event.
But diminished expectations can be a good thing.
If any among the 45,000-strong capacity crowd who came to see the band - only the third act, after Jimmy Buffett and Bon Jovi, to perform on the Phillies' home field since its 2004 opening - were worried that this year's marquee stadium tour was going to be a washout, they needn't have been. (Despite predictions, it didn't rain, either.)
What has always made the Police a distinctive pop band is their predilection for turning crisp, catchy pop songs inside out. Sting's cocksure, rubbery bass lines came to the fore, Summers' shimmery and spiky guitar parts attacked from odd angles, Copeland's punchy polyrhythms provided musical shading.
And at the Bank, in a top-notch, nearly two-hour, greatest-hits show chock-full of musicianly bubblegum, those strengths were in full effect.
Songs such as "Can't Stand Losing You," "Walking on the Moon," and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" were stretched and compressed, broken apart and put back together, without sacrificing the simple, often-wordless sing-along choruses that usually involve some variation of Sting's favorite syllables: eee and yo.
The band sounded not enervated but energized, in practiced, sharply professional mid-tour form. Not that there was a lot of intimate interaction among the principals. The tussle among the three musical personalities was always in evidence, albeit under the "big enough umbrella," as Sting put it in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," of his own ego.
But at a Police show, each individual gets his own video screen (as well as his own bio in the band's press kit). And they all presumably get to share in the payday from a stadium tour with some tickets going for more than $200 and where fans could cough up $15 for "an official Police lanyard" from which hangs a laminated pseudo-VIP badge that gains the buyer special access to nothing.
And each player gets to strut his stuff on disciplined, rearranged hits that were imaginatively conceived - while only occasionally indulging in tedious jamming. Summers took off with the melody of "So Lonely," and worked crafty wonders with his whammy bar. Copeland worked relentlessly all night, leaping up from his kit to bang or gently tap a gong or add ringing vibes to "Wrapped Around Your Finger."
But he, just like everyone else, seemed to be in his own world on stage, executing his parts with passion and precision while barely connecting with his bandmates. (He and Summers smiled at each other once or twice, but every time the guitarist and Sting stood close to each other - which they didn't, in "Don't Stand So Close to Me" - it seemed more an orchestrated pose for the video cameras than a physical expression of camaraderie.)
You don't go to see the Police, though, to see three chums pal around in a sandbox. You go to hear tunes that, at their best, as on the beautifully sinister stalker song "Every Breath You Take," explore dark corners of the psyche with bright, irresistible melodies.
And you go to be entertained, which, as long as the Sting is on the job, is sure to be taken care of. The Britisher born Gordon Sumner joked about the band's ancient origins, saying that its debut album, Outlandos d'Amour, came out in 1878, not 1978. And he name-checked Grendel's Lair, the long-gone South Street club the band played - to a crowd of three, he claimed - on its first time through Philadelphia.
The first-class front man's svelte, pumped-up physique ranks him with Mick Jagger as a stupendously fit, over-50 paragon of rock-and-roll clean living - or, perhaps, of the auxiliary benefits of tantric sex. He doesn't go for the high notes he can't hit, but his voice sounded strong and agile. And as he strutted the stage in a too-tight T-shirt, biceps bulging, he gave the formidably female, intergenerational crowd the eye candy to go with the ear candy.
Glaswegian trio the Fratellis were a sprightly and engaging opening act. Hardly anyone in the open-air stadium seemed to have heard their debut album, Costello Music, but songs like "Henrietta" and "Whistle for the Choir" were more than ingratiatingly tuneful enough for those who gave up on the tailgating and took an early seat. The band is sticking around tonight to play the XPoNential Music Festival in the more cozy confines of Wiggins Park in Camden.
For a slide show of Bonnie Weller's Police photos, go to http://go.philly.
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.