Sting sails high on waves of jazz as opener for the Grateful Dead


Talk about culture clash of the first order. Last night at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington, the BMW set met the VW bus crowd; Calvin Klein's Obsession mingled with incense and patchouli.

It has to be the most unlikely pairing since Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner: Sting, the debonair British pop star, surrounded by top-notch jazz players and the Grateful Dead, monarchs of the last bastion of '60s culture. Well, the good (or bad) news is that the Dead are still the Dead, and aside from a svelte, almost youthful-looking Jerry Garcia, not much has changed with the world's oldest hippies.

Change, however, is something that opening act Sting has perfected.

The artist's reputation for thoughtful sophistication is well deserved. Since his Police days, Sting's solo output has taken a decidedly jazz lean.

For the recording side of his persona, it has meant a remarkable growth as a writer. For the performing side, and this is based on seeing him in his Police days, there is now a boldness and comfort in the way he commands the stage.

Although obviously unaccustomed to the crowd-whipping duties normally reserved for opening acts, the mellow Deadhead assemblage required little coaxing. As Sting and his sidemen sailed through the opening, RFK's field full of tie-dyed spectators grabbed the groove and held it throughout the better than one-hour set.

Although he offered only a few cuts from his latest release, "Ten Summoners Tales," the bassist/vocalist's best work came in that dreamy world where British-based folk music meets pop-jazz. The current single, "If I Ever," was one of the most fulfilling four minutes of the evening.

The ensemble settled into a comfortable groove immediately. Selections from "Soul Cages" and "Nothing Like the Sun" were propelled by a rhythm section chock full of raw energy, a $H spontaneous display of competent musicianship common to jazz supper clubs but nearly unheard of in an arena setting. Still, the band was at its best when rearranging old Police tunes. "King of Pain" found a new shot of adrenaline when delivered by this collection of noted sidemen.

Keyboardist David Sancious had his best moments on the rendition of "When the World Is Running Down," and the band as a whole shone brightest while providing the creamy backdrop for "Every Breath You Take."

At a time when most of his contemporaries are resting on reunions and rehash -- name another first-generation MTV band or artist who has thrived into the '90s -- Sting is continuing to break new ground.

Going on the road with the Dead is statement enough about the faith he has in his material. Toss in polished lyrical growth, brainy song writing and a true appreciation for his art, and this ex-Police leader stands on the vanguard of pop music. Sting is truly at the apex of the freshest, most creative point of his career.

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