Sting can’t be accused of treading water in his comfort zone. The last few weeks have seen the man born Gordon Sumner continue a 14-month joint headline tour alongside fellow rock legend Paul Simon — a fascinating odd couple defined by duets and performing each others’ songs — and star on Broadway in his own poorly received musical The Last Ship, which sunk and closed early in a sea of debt.
Dubai then was a chance for Sting to step back into his old hit-shaped boots, relax, and enjoy the songwriting riches of the legacy he has carved over close to four decades.
Garbed in impressively tight jeans, an even tighter blue T-shirt, and sporting a substantial beard strangely reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, Sting mounted the Jazz Festival stage a few minutes early, ravaged guitar chords and a drum roll announcing his arrival.
The man's intent was clear from the off, launching into a peerless barrage of five singalongs. He opened as he did in Abu Dhabi two years ago, with a handclapping If I Ever Lose My Faith, before stadium-sized renditions of Englishman in New York and Every Little Thing She Does is Magic. Next came an anthemic Fields of Gold and a sprightly So Lonely, its quiet-loud-quiet structure predating grunge by a good decade.
But more than just intent, Sting appeared to have rapture, grinning at his own dexterity as he traced hypnotic fretboard runs, exploring the full sonic palette of his battered Fender bass. Relishing having the stage to just himself again, much of the familiar material was extended, contorted, rearranged to add fresh breakdowns, bridges and solos. The reason Sting still enjoys playing the hits may be because they are subject to a continuous evolution and reinterpretation.
Never was this more clear than set closer Roxanne, which after a single rockabilly-tinged chorus broke down into a huge headbanging bridge, then a deep dub groove, and melded into Bill Withers' Ain't No Sunshine before returning for another chorus of everyone's favourite song about a woman of the night.
The other biggest crowd pleasers were also The Police songs, included an angsty Driven to Tears, Walking on the Moon, and Message in a Bottle, a piece of pop genius here stretched to widescreen proportions, the five-piece band stretching out over the outro as their 63-year-old leader showed off the strength of his voice.
Yet Sting’s greatest strength is his seamless musicianship. Perhaps because he’s a bassist, even his most generic moments are enthused with a dynamic rhythmic sensibility — an interior scaffold of reggae or funk — lacking from most ageing white singer-songwriters.
And as well as still possessing sublime bass chops, powerful vocal chords and an inimitable back catalogue to practice his talents on, it seems Sting has a sense of humour. Encoring with the Arabic-flavoured Desert Rose, he tried a spot of belly dancing, yelling yalla gamely at the crowd.
Sting left the stage for a second time with the most passionless performance, but best received track of the evening — I'd venture the two things are linked — an obligatory Every Breath You Take.
If one detected a slight malaise in that stalkers' anthem, Sting more than made up for it with an unexpected second encore. He closed the set again as he did in Abu Dhabi, by taking a guitar for the first time for a beautiful, minimally backed acoustic ballad, Fragile. A beautiful, stark song with a universally understood message — "lest we forget how fragile we are" — it was a genuinely affecting moment, able to break down the barriers between stage and audience, despite the huge space.
In support: Lindsey Stirling
“If you haven’t figured out what I do yet, I’m a dancing violinist,” explained opening act Lindsey Stirling, a couple of tunes in. “And if you’re expecting me to sing ... I’m a dancing violinist.”
That she is. The former America’s Got Talent contestant danced — leaping around the stage like a hyperactive teenager, garbed in a shiny black plastic skirt, trainers and sporting wild Florence Welch-esque hair. And she played violin — attacking her instrument with squealing runs, over an incongruous background of a live drummer and DJ/keyboardist.
A relentless bout of pounding electronic beats and theatrically swelling strings and synths — it felt like the score for a Hollywood action movie, with squeaky violin on top.
The audio equivalent of watching The Dubai Fountain. Again and again and again.