Sting had a lot riding on his most recent album, 57th & 9th, and its 2017 tour that packed Fishtown’s Fillmore Philadelphia on Saturday night.
First, he had to thaw a freezing audience of grumbling over-40s. Luckily, they could sample the debut of the Fillmore’s tony new VIP lounge area, with plush couch seating and heady cocktails, so that was a start. Second, the usually eclectic Sting had to distance himself, his literary lyrical skills, and his warm jazzy melodic complexity from the taint of a decade’s worth of lute music, morbid boating songs, depressing Christmas holiday albums, and the saddest set of children’s tales this side of Bambi.
Though the crunchy rock-outs and baleful ballads of 57th & 9th were a nice star on Sting’s road to recovery, it was through this loose, live revelry that the singer/bassist seemed happily unbound.
Starting and ending with 57th & 9th’s most beatific moments (“Heading South on the Great North Road,” with its sliding vocal runs, and “The Empty Chair”), Sting & Co. proved nimble, limber, even sensual, as though they'd practiced the boss’ tantric yoga routine. The band was a family affair, with not only father-son guitarists Dominic and Rufus Miller, but also Sting’s soundalike son, Joe Sumner, handling background vocals.
After mentioning his first Philly gigs, in 1979 at Grendel’s Lair (“You weren’t there. We had three people: me, Andy, and Stewart,” referring to his Police mates) and 1980 at the Walnut Street Theatre, Sting made swift, spare work of Police hits “Synchronicity II” and “Spirits in the Material World” before jumping into his solo catalog (a Marley-like “An Englishman in New York,” a rockabilly-ish “She's Too Good for Me,” the rough, blunt pop of “Down, Down, Down” and “Petrol Head”).
After he and his son ran through a clunky version of David Bowie’s spacey “Ashes to Ashes,” Sting tackled 57th & 9th's “50,000,” written in dedication to Bowie, Prince, and Lemmy. "50,000 voices rising every time he sings … Rock stars don't ever die / They only fade away."
Without overarching themes, pretension, or lutes, Sting’s new stuff -- like his ancient “Roxanne,” played here with tart brio -- reminded you of why you loved him in the first place: He writes delicately nuanced pop songs with intricate working parts and smartly emotional lyrics, plain and simple. In the intimate Fillmore (he dug getting close to the audience as well as “loving the chandeliers”) the intricacies of Sting’s contagion came through loud and clear.