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Jump blues: the Police at SPAC.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Rats in a Cage

By John Brodeur

The Police, Elvis Costello and the Imposters

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 1


It’s less a policy than a preference that we music critics do our best to shy away from getting into too much of a narrative when reviewing a live show. But some things cannot go unsaid. Here’s one: The beer cage is the worst idea in SPAC history. After battling our way through a sea of lawn chairs and merchandising tents to get into the damn thing, my wife and I thought we might have time enough to have one drink. Two-thirds of the way through my $7 Heineken, I heard what sounded like intro music coming up over the brick shithouse. (The bar is right behind the bathrooms.) “We should finish these and get back,” I said. The low rumble continued as we worked our way through the last bits of our beverages, at which time something caught my ear—wait, that sounds like Sting. By the time we escaped the holding pen, the Police were three songs deep into their set.

What I’m getting at here is, if you’re going to corral all the drinkers in one place, at least do it in fucking earshot of the amphitheater.

There’s another major problem with this design: Some people like to get good and stewed at rock concerts. Those people might extend their stay in Alcoholcatraz and, when they emerge 30 or 40 minutes into the headlining set, they might be a bit aggressive. Like the husky asshole who almost pushed my wife over trying to get to the entry gate, then actually tried to throw a punch at me—over the gate and around my wife, even!—when I called him out for being a dick. Like, really man, good for you. You may have seats, but at least my wife isn’t a yowling shrew. (And I know the SPAC powers that be don’t condone this, but drink in the parking lot next time, dude. If we’re all lucky you’ll pass out in your truck and miss the show.)

Anyway! Does it sound like I had a bad time? I didn’t. I’ll stop short of calling it worth the $250 or whatever it was for prime tickets, as the 95-minute Police set barely cleared the dollar-a-minute ratio for even those in the cheap seats (an all-original Beatles reunion might be worth that, but not this)—but as it was, the concert was a prime example of what a summertime concert ought to be. The people were there to hear those guys play those songs—and that’s just what those guys did.

From “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” to “Can’t Stand Losing You” to “King of Pain,” the Police ran through most of their big hits, skipping only the near-impossible ones. (“Synchronicity II,” we hardly knew ye.) Sting proved again to be one of the best, and most game, singer-bassists you’re likely to see (the little love-shove he gave Andy Summers at the end of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” was a weird combination of playful and requisite); Stewart Copeland was dazzling on both drums and an expansive percussion kit, and he made no bones about showing off (did anyone else notice that he actually sent a cymbal flying during “Wrapped Around Your Finger”?); and Summers’ playing was exactly what he needed to be: solid and technical, rich with tone, without being overly flashy (that was never his thing in the first place).

The 17-song set had its soft spots—Sting can get up into that high register only so often and for so long, which put a blanket over encore jam “So Lonely,” and Summers shouldn’t be allowed any extended solos, as his style does not lend to such adventures—but on the whole the Police delivered one of the most crowd-pleasing performances of this or any summer.

And they brought along the best opening act you could ask for: fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Elvis Costello and his band the Imposters. I’ll bow out of any in-depth discussion of the set, as I’m biased—a certifiable Costello geek, even—but suffice it to say that the openers and headliners could have swapped sets and this still would have been one of the best shows in recent memory. Oh, and Sting walked on to sing “Alison” with Costello, which was a total you-only-see-this-shit-on-TV moment. My only complaint: It would be nice to hear “Accidents Will Happen” or “You Belong to Me” instead of “Everyday I Write the Book” next time.

And maybe let us have our beers on the lawn. That would be cool too.

Future Presentation

Esperanza Spalding

Music Haven Stage, Central Park, Aug. 4

Following a set that defied the threat of rain and delivered one of contemporary jazz’s most talked-about rising stars, the MC at Central Park’s Music Haven stage told the crowd that this would be a night we’d remember 10 years down the road. However, exactly how we begin to consider Esperanza Spalding’s contribution to jazz is yet to be determined.

At 23, Spalding is the youngest faculty member in the history of the Berklee School of Music. Armed with a crisp, expressive voice and sterling bass chops, she’s ridden this distinction through the release of her debut album, collaborations with Pat Metheny and Joe Lovano, as well as appearances on several of TV’s late shows. With European and Japanese tour stops on the horizon, as well as a bass summit with legends Stanley Clarke and Dave Holland, Spalding is rapidly trading her wunderkind tag for heavyweight status.

She opened with Betty Carter’s “Jazz Ain’t Nothing but Soul,” and it stood as a proper thesis for the evening. Supported by a very young rhythm section, the standard came off squeaky-clean. The shock of watching a small woman walk a bass line while singing a vocal lead had all attention oscillating between the two talents, but as each trumped the other at turns, Spalding’s musicianship came to rest in thoroughly holistic terms. “Body and Soul” brought the performance in a direction one might have expected. Candy for the crowd of lawn chairs, the tune (like many of Spalding’s more mainstream numbers) showed a bit of residual starch. Far from a patently negative quality though, it simply proved that the Berklee varnish needs some time yet to age.

See, that MC was right in a way she didn’t intend. Ten years from now, we’ll know which direction Spalding has chosen to take. In fact, it may all depend on the success of “Precious,” an R&B ballad the singer introduced as her humble attempt at commercial success. If it takes, we may begin hearing Spalding alongside Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae at the supermarket checkout line; if not, it might be the kick-start she needs to expedition fully into the realm her mentors now occupy.

As the set proceeded, this latter potential proved itself to breathtaking effect. After an oblique voyage in the fusion realm that had Spalding invoking Jaco Pastorius on a fretless acoustic bass, the band plunged into dark, fractured territory that resolved in a funk workout. A duet with pianist Leo Genovese seemed to challenge any bias one could have toward her bass playing, as vocal arpeggios reclaimed the method of scatting from dinner-club mediocrity. However, with Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind,” Spalding truly came into her own. If Billie Holiday is elemental like fire, Ella Fitzgerald like water, Erykah Badu like earth, then Spalding certainly deserves her place alongside Simone in affinity with the wind.

It’s a win-win situation here: If Spalding’s pop aspirations flop, then we have decades worth of exploration to look forward to from one of jazz’s most unique musicians; if not, then grocery shopping just got a little bit better.

—Josh Potter

It Makes You Happy

Sheryl Crow, James Blunt

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, July 31

Angelina Jolie isn’t the only millionaire Mommy who wants to save the world.

Sheryl Crow took the stage last Thursday sans band to strum through “God Bless This Mess,” and while the 9/11 reference is trite and way overdue, you had to give the woman an “A” for even going there. Then the curtains unfurled and the band arrived and it was like we were at home watching the Grammys, as Crow kicked “Shine Over Babylon” over the moon and displayed the vocal chops that have her appearing for duet duty at every tribute show across the land. Her return to fun came in the form of another new tune, “Love is Free,” which has the annoying line “Oh everybody/Devil take your money/Money got no hold on me.” (That wouldn’t be because you have more mint than Fort Knox, would it?)

Class envy be damned, Crow went back to the songs that got her famous in the first place, with little quips and detours into other songs she admires along the way. “Can’t Cry Anymore” encompassed “I Can See Clearly Now,” while “Strong Enough” elicited an Us Weekly-friendly admission that “that list just keeps on growing” (of dudes that aren’t strong enough to be her man, natch). A bit of Crow the taskmaster was exposed when she called her keyboardist “our resident alcoholic.”(Dude, the guy totally nailed the Hammond solo during “My Favorite Mistake,” let the guy enjoy a glass of wine on a hot summer night!) Then Crow put her political firebrand hat on again by railing against, um, gasoline. Her actual tune “Gasoline” is an impressive piece of songwriting that is some sort of sci-fi fantasia about riots over fuel in the year 2017—I think there might have been a Charlton Heston or Sean Connery movie about it already, though. In case we didn’t get the grand import of the prophecy, Sheryl and band segued into a spot-on invocation of “Gimme Shelter.”

“There Goes the Neighborhood” had plenty of big rock moves (and yes, a seemingly improvised snippet of “Love Is Alive”), while “Detours” and “Wildflowers’ showed that Crow is deftest as a songwriter and performer when she lightens her touch. Then it was onto the big hits to end the show, and we went home enlightened and wondering how anyone can be so darn skinny.

I was prepared to be totally annoyed by James Blunt, and I’m surprised to say that I totally wasn’t. The first time I ever knew the guy existed was when I stumbled across his over-the-top performance of “You’re Beautiful” on Saturday Night Live—I honestly thought he was one of the cast members performing a skit. But when he took the stage at SPAC with his dapper band, he seemed to have calmed down a bit. “Breathe” could have been a Gilbert O’Sullivan or Supertramp tune. Granted, I still think his ballads are overwrought monstrosities, but the guy has a slightly mad and mischievous glint in his eyes, and he won us all over when he bounded off the stage and ran towards the back of the amphitheatre, kissing and hugging a couple of older people along the way. As my wife said, he’s the contemporary Davy Jones. Now only if he’d stop singing like a Bee Gee.

—Mike Hotter

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