HERSHEY, PA. // As the stage lights went up at Hersheypark Stadium, 44,000 fans roared in delight at an experience that had not been possible for 23 years. The mild, breezy evening and the striking Hotel Hershey provided a magical setting for the reggae-suffused sounds of the reunited Police.
Making the 29th stop on its national tour two weeks ago, the '80s super trio of Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland seemed charged by the enthusiastic reception. Opening with 1979's driving "Message in a Bottle," the show sparkled with fresh, energetic, sometimes-imaginative renditions of the band's greatest hits and fan favorites.
There was no elaborate, Broadway-style staging; no glittery, Vegas-inspired dance routines -- just three AARP-eligible guys (Sting, 55, looking ageless; Summers, 55, and Copeland, 64, looking their ages) jamming hits that helped define the Reagan era. With little chatter, they kept the crowd rocking on its feet for more than two hours.
A reunion concert can be an extraordinary opportunity for audiences -- particularly for those who weren't old enough to hear the group the first time around. But for musicians such as The Police, it can also be extraordinarily complex, with egos and long-held feelings sublimated in pursuit of artistic renewal, cash and a chance to relive past successes.
Think of it as returning, however briefly, to a passionate but rocky marriage. Fans here will be able to witness just such a spectacle on Saturday during The Police set at the Virgin Festival at Pimlico Race Course.
"The public thinks somebody makes a phone call and says, 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if we got back together?'" says David Helfant, a music industry attorney in Los Angeles. "But it's not that easy."
Long before a ticket is sold or a bass is thumped, lawyers and handlers must negotiate among prickly personalities and thorny financial concerns.
"There's a lot on the business side that has to be cleared before a band goes on the road," Helfant says. Sometimes it's as fundamental as securing rights to use the band's name if the members don't own it.
A key task is calculating everyone's cut of the box office.
"Then you have to figure out what products will be sold during the tour -- merchandise, live recordings -- and who gets what from that," Helfant adds. "For a tour like the Police, there's a ton of money to be made. And before they hit the road, all of that has to be handled."
Aging performers used to cushy country estates have to gird themselves for the physical rigors of near-constant performing and traveling. And their bodies are not as resilient in the face of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle of alcohol, drugs and sex.
Director Christopher Guest and actor Eugene Levy sent up the addled state of the burned-out musician in the 2003 satire A Mighty Wind, but the reality can be truly saddening. Bass player John Entwistle, at 57, was a day away from starting another reunion tour with The Who in 2002 when cocaine stopped his long-abused heart. He was found in a Las Vegas hotel room.
Of course, there is often the emotional drama of reuniting bandmates -- many of whom have artistic temperaments.
This year, the dormant hard rock group Van Halen was looking forward to its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Eccentic lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen had even OK'd a summer tour with one-time front man David Lee Roth returning and with 15-year-old son Wolfgang Van Halen replacing founding bassist Michael Anthony. But that brow-raising plan came to naught.
"We have fragile politics in Van Halen," a disappointed Roth told the Los Angeles Times.
Relationships that weathered the trials of adolescence can strain under the tension of performing. Reunion tours have been a crucible for acrimony between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who have given performances in which they've barely acknowledged each other.
But take the lesson of Expose, the multi-platinum '80s dance-pop trio whose hits included "Let Me Be the One" and "Point of No Return."
The original members -- Ann Curless, Gioia Bruno and Jeanette Jurado -- reunited last year. They had disbanded in 1996 after a dark period of infighting, disputes with producers and the disgrace of being dropped from their label, Arista Records.
"There's a lot of water under the bridge now, as they say," says Jurado, who sang lead on Expose's biggest hit, 1988's "Seasons Change." Since the band's split, she has lived quietly in Nevada with her husband and two children, ages 5 and 7. "I think now we understand that being in a group is a lot like a marriage. We all have different personalities. It's hard work to keep it going.
"But you do it all for the music. When you hit the stage, that chemistry you have with each other, it makes it work. You have to want to make it work."
Perhaps that's the lesson for the Police.
Although the group hasn't toured or recorded in more than two decades, the music that Sting, Summers and Copeland made during their eight years together has continued to draw new fans. The band has sold more than 22 million albums in the U.S. alone, been sampled by the likes of P. Diddy (in his 1997 smash "I'll Be Missing You") and has influenced the sounds of Arctic Monkeys and Maroon 5.
"The musical sophistication of the group sets them apart from most of their '80s peers," says Keith Clifton, professor of musicology at Central Michigan University's School of Music. "While other bands were writing simple love songs using synth riffs in 4 / 4 meter, the Police were experimenting with unusual rhythmic patterns and drawing heavily from reggae and rock."
That sonic combination, overlaid with jazz-inflected overtones, was emboldened by the literate, complex lyrics of Sting, a former English teacher. The hits have lived on: "Don't Stand So Close to Me," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," "Invisible Sun," "Wrapped Around Your Finger."
But for years, it seemed as if a Police reunion would never happen. With no public announcement, the three disbanded in 1984 after the triumph of 1983's Synchronicity, which spent 17 weeks atop Billboard's pop album charts and sold more than 8 million copies.
Sting immediately became a huge solo star and "the soccer mom's sex symbol," according to Salon.com. He spent 23 years distancing himself from the Police, flatly turning down lucrative offers to reunite with the band.
But last year, after the tepid critical reception and lackluster sales of his past three solo projects, Sting says he was looking for a challenge.
"What clinched it was thinking, 'What would surprise people? What would surprise me? Surprise is everything," the singer-songwriter told Rolling Stone.
The "surprise" idea turned out to be a reunion with his old bandmates -- the first since their 2003 induction into the Rock Hall.
Of course, the Police had broken up for a reason. Copeland had started the group, but Sting's songwriting prowess made him powerful. Sting chafed at the confines of the band; his cool intensity clashed with Copeland's flamboyance. And Summers was often stuck in the middle.
Copeland and Summers had both done fine since, even discounting the album royalties. Copeland composed soundtracks, performed solo and formed projects with prominent musicians such as jazz bassist Stanley Clarke and Trey Anastasio of Phish. Last year, he launched his documentary Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out at the Sundance Film Festival.
Summers scored films, worked as a television bandleader and became a published writer and photographer; his latest book is the autobiography, One Train Later: A Memoir, published in October.
Through his management, Sting proposed the reunion.
Perhaps the prospect had as much lure for the trio as it had for fans.
"Fans had been waiting for this tour for so long," says Aamer Haleem, former host of VH1's Bands Reunited, a reality show that reunited such '80s bands as Klymaxx and the Motels. "They felt like this would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to see all the original members on stage again."
A Grammys kickoff
Shortly after Sting's pitch, the reunion became a reality with a much-hyped performance of "Roxanne" at the 48th annual Grammy Awards in February. Three months later, the Police played before 22,000 fans over two days at GM Place in Vancouver.
The tour, sponsored by Best Buy, has now grossed $41.9 million, with many U.S. dates still ahead. The show will most likely become the year's top-selling tour, with an estimated $100 million in North American ticket sales, according to Pollstar, a concert-tour publication.
But, "None of us needs the money, OK?" Summers told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "The main reason to do it is for the buzz. [Performing is] a drug. It's one of the greatest things you can do in life, and I personally feel this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm trying to be a great musician."
On a blog, Copeland has good-naturedly recorded their attempts to be great musicians onstage.
When a jump didn't work, "The mighty Sting momentarily looks like a petulant pansy instead of the god of rock," he wrote of a Vancouver show. In a subsequent song, "We are so off kilter that Sting counts us in to begin the song again. This is ubeLIEVably lame. We are the mighty Police and we are totally at sea."
Critical reports from the road have not cooled fans' ardor.
"It's interesting to see the dynamic of the crowd at the Police shows," notes VH1's Haleem. "You see a lot of people who weren't even born when the Police was hot."
Presumably, the members of the Police finally wanted to make their three-way marriage work. The performance at Hersheypark gleamed with tight, intense musicianship. The band was mostly faithful to the original arrangements, but a few tunes were expanded, folding in jazzy and Middle Eastern textures.
"They've had a lot of different musical experiences since they last played together," says Haleem, who saw the reunion tour in Los Angeles. "It's interesting that they would have different influences in the arrangements now."
If the show at Hersheypark was any indication, that unique musical alchemy of the Police is as potent today as it was in the '80s.
"It's really all about the music," Haleem says. "When you talk about the Police, you're talking about timeless music. It's that magical spark you don't find just anywhere."
Virgin Festival lineup
Fountains of Wayne, noon-12:45 p.m., north stage
Shout Out Out Out Out, noon-12:50 p.m., dance tent
Fiction Plane, 12:15 p.m.-1 p.m., south stage
Cheap Trick, 1 p.m.-1:50 p.m., north stage
Miguel Migs of Petalpusher, 1 p.m.-1:50 p.m., dance tent
The Fratellis, 1:20 p.m.-2:10 p.m., south stage
Booka Shade, 2 p.m.-2:50 p.m., dance tent
Amy Winehouse, 2:10 p.m.-3 p.m., north stage
Paolo Nutini, 2:35 p.m.-3:35 p.m., south stage
Felix da Housecat, 3 p.m.-4 p.m., dance tent
Incubus, 3:25 p.m.-4:20 p.m., north stage
Peter, Bjorn and John, 4 p.m.-4:50 p.m., south stage
Danny Tenaglia, 4 p.m.-6 p.m., dance tent
Ben Harper & the Innocent Criminals, 4:45 p.m.-5:45 p.m., north stage
LCD Soundsystem, 5:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m., south stage
Sasha & John Digweed, 6 p.m.-8:30 p.m., dance tent
Beastie Boys, 6:15 p.m.-7:35 p.m., north stage
TV on the Radio, 7:15 p.m.-8:15 p.m., south stage
The Police, 8:05 p.m.-9:50 p.m., north stage
Sander Van Doorn, 8:30 p.m.-10 p.m., dance tent
Modest Mouse, 8:45 p.m.-10 p.m., south stage
CSS, noon-12:50 p.m., north stage
Dan Deacon, noon-12:30 p.m., dance tent
Aiden, 12:15 p.m.-1:05 p.m., south stage
Girl Talk, 12:30 p.m.-1:10 p.m., dance tent
Regina Spektor, 1:10 p.m.-2 p.m., north stage
Dieselboy & Andy C, 1:10 p.m.-3:10 p.m., dance tent
Matisyahu, 1:30 p.m.-2:25 p.m., south stage
Spoon, 2:25 p.m.-3:15 p.m., north stage
Explosions in the Sky, 2:50 p.m.-3:45 p.m., south stage
James Zabiela, 3:10 p.m.-4:25 p.m., dance tent
Panic! at the Disco, 3:45 p.m.-4:45 p.m., north stage
Bad Brains, 4:15 p.m.-5:15 p.m., south stage
Infected Mushroom, 4:35 p.m.-5:50 p.m., dance tent
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 5:15 p.m.-6:15 p.m., north stage
Wu-Tang Clan, 5:45 p.m.-6:45 p.m., south stage
The Crystal Method, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m., dance tent
Interpol, 6:45 p.m.-8 p.m., north stage
Velvet Revolver, 7:15 p.m.-8:15 p.m., south stage
Deep Dish, 7:30 p.m.-9 p.m., dance tent
The Smashing Pumpkins, 8:30 p.m.-10 p.m., north stage
311, 8:45 p.m.-10 p.m., south stage
M.I.A., 9:10 p.m.-10 p.m., dance tent
The festival is at Pimlico Race Course, 5201 Park Heights Ave. Tickets ($97.50-$450) are available through Ticketmaster, 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com.
See photos of the Virgin Festival acts and hear clips of Police songs at baltimoresun.com / virginfest