What Does a Well-Rehearsed Group Sound Like?

June 8, 2007

This. And this.

About a week before The Police, I saw Secret Chiefs 3 in a club with about 300 other fanatics. They play a combination of surf, Asian (including Middle Eastern and South Asian), and heavy metal. At extreme volume. No vocals. It was insanely loud at the club where they played, but it didn’t hurt because it sounded so good. They’ve got to be one of the tightest groups of amazingly accomplished musicians in the world. I’d seen them once before and thought their drummer was a bit off, but this time they had two, including Peijman Kouretchian, who I know vaguely through one of my bands, and who is/was one of the best drummers in Seattle hands-down. Anyway, they slayed. Slew. Whatever.

Which was more entertaining? Hard to say. But The Police definitely were not 10 times better than Secret Chiefs 3, as the disparity in ticket prices would suggest. Supply and demand.

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What Does a 23-year Hiatus Sound Like?

June 8, 2007

Went to see the reunion tour of The Police the other night. Tickets were outrageously expensive, and they pulled all the Satanic modern concert promoter tricks–sponsorship by Best Buy with Best Buy frequent buyer club members getting first crack, then the $100 “fan club” payment to get second crack. I joined the club, and after 10 minutes (when I was finally able to get a response on the Ticketmaster site) I could either get 100-level seats in the back of the arena or 200-level seats about halfway to the stage. I did it anyway, mainly because they were my wife’s favorite band of all time, and I didn’t want to risk not finding a scalped ticket the day of the show. We sat at the 200-level seats, high up and about halfway down the arena.

I also own all their records and had a brief Police phase when I really enjoyed them. Plus, they’re such a weird, inimitable band–a pop songwriter with a golden voice, a punk-ska rhythm section, and a psychedelic effects-driven guitarist. Nobody even tries to rip them off, they’re too weird.

So, 23 years later. I purposely didn’t read anything about prior shows so I was expecting they’d crank out the hits like they sound on the albums with some backing musicians, triggers, all the tricks that the big guns use in these stadium tours. Instead, it was a raw and intense set by three guys playing real instruments through real amps–no click tracks, no backing tracks, no bullshit.

Lots of new introductions and extended solos. Sting and Andy had straight microphone stands, which is unheard of at this level (everybody goes wireless), and Sting was using it as a cue–when he walked up to the stand, it was a signal that the solo was almost over. Just like a bar band. Andy did some great work, his solo on “Driven to Tears” was abstract and amazing, and he occasionally did some bluesy rock figures that I didn’t think he had in him. Other highlights: “Synchronicity II,” “Invisible Sun” (really heavy and uncomfortable), “King of Pain” (not my favorite song but they did it beautifully), a medley from “Voices Inside My Head” into “When the World Is Running Down…” (still apt more than 25 years after its release), another medley from “Regatta de Blanc” into “Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Walking in Your Footsteps,” and “Every Little Thing She Does…”

That said, the band was under-rehearsed. They butchered the third song, “Spirits in the Material World” pretty badly–it’s complicated, with everything on the upbeat during the verses then switching to downbeats on the choruses, and Andy was trying to cover the keyboard parts on guitar, but it just sounded like a mess.

Stewart Copeland and Sting need about a week of rhythm section practice. Lots of tempo changes and rhythmic weirdness. When I saw Sting solo about 10 years ago, I was impressed by his ability to play complex Police bass rhythms and sing perfectly over them. Last night, he seemed like he was having a harder time–probably because he can’t boss these two guys around like he could boss his band around, so has to adapt and do things that aren’t easy for him. (I play bass, and singing and playing at the same time is really hard for mere mortals. Much easier to sing and play guitar.)

There were also some weird key changes in the middle of songs, which might have been intentional or might have been Andy or Sting playing in the wrong key–with only two musical instruments on stage, it can almost ALWAYS sound like an experimental harmony. But there were some mid-song modulations that both of them hit, so must have been intentional.

The vibe was casual, they seemed to be having fun, although a little nervous about their performance. Sting introduced the other two members to each other before “Spirits,” seemingly knowing that they wouldn’t connect on it (which they didn’t). Stewart told Andy that he should keep playing his Telecaster on one song. Then Stewart forgot to get behind the percussion kit at the beginning of King of Pain, instead sitting behind the drum kit. Sting told him he was supposed to start the song, and they argued a bit, then Sting finally said “you’re supposed to be up above.” Very funny at the time, although I’ve read they did the same thing in Vancouver, so maybe it was staged.

All of them seem impressed and a little blown away by how many people are excited to see them–while singing “Every Breath You Take,” Sting had a look of uncomfortable disbelief on his face, like it hadn’t quite hit him until NOW that he was the guy who wrote this song that everybody still knows 24 years after it came out.

So if you’re a huge fan, you’re already going. But what about the rest of us? I’d say if you like their songs, you’ve got the money for a good ticket, and are open-minded and interested in music rather than just wanting to hear the songs like they sound on the CD, then you’ll enjoy yourself. But if spending several hundred dollars is a real stretch for you, and you’re not the biggest Police fan in the world, skip it. It won’t change your life, and it’s not worth missing a car payment or going into debt on your credit cards.

Supply and demand’s a real bummer sometimes. But good for them–I’ve read they’ve already sold 1.77 million tickets. At an average of probably $150 apiece, when you add in the bogus fan club membership fee. (Each fan club membership gets you a right to two presale tickets.) So, the tour has so far grossed $265.5 million. Take out all the promoters’ fees and so on, and the band has probably netted–is taking home–at least $30 million apiece.

Finally, the crowd. Some younger folks who were into it, including the college girls next to us who stood through the whole show. But to all you aging Baby Boomers who think the price of a ticket entitles you to scream “down in front” at the top of your lungs everytime somebody stands up several rows in front of you, even though you are perfectly able-bodied and capable of standing…please stay home. You’re horrible people. You almost managed to ruin the concert for my wife (although we stood through 80% of it anyway). Why do you go to concerts to ruin them for everybody else, when you’d obviously be more comfortable sitting at home watching your 64-inch TV with surround sound? Just stay home. And no, we won’t sit down for you or anybody else, we’ll sit down when the music makes us sit down.

Heare are some decent YouTube videos from the tour so far:
King of Pain
Walking In Your Footsteps
Spirits in the Material World (this is from Vancouver, looks like they nailed it pretty well that night)
Roxanne (8-minute version from the show I saw)