When 15 or 16,000 middle aged (and up) folks form blocks-long lines on a Thursday night, you know there must be some Serious Nostalgia in play. I couldn’t help but think this, watching the line as I sat on a half wall eating a massive burrito*, the sun slowly dying in San Jose. What got these folks out? My mind swirled to think of how many conjured ghosts of lost lovers and youth would be dancing over our heads when Peter Gabriel and Sting stepped onto the stage together.
“Respect your elders! (That should be the name of this tour.)” said a younger man hawking t-shirts along the line. The woman behind me whispered to her companions, “I feel like I’ve just been demographically profiled.” (She had.)
Inside the stage was set for a massive show. Two drum kits – fit for Neil Pert – along with a third percussion station with djembes and congas and the like create an imposing upper tier. Three keyboards. Nine or ten microphones. All backed by more than a dozen columns suspended in air and displaying projections of light and images. The arena buzzed in anticipation. The two legends, we knew, would be swapping songs for the next few hours in a totally intermingled mega set.
That set, however, started nostalgically slow. Gabriel’s first song, “Rhythm of the Heat”, wasn’t even released as a single back in 1982. But the crowd was pleased with this deep cut, which Peter and his band belted drenched in red light. Sting, coming to stage for the second song dressed in blue and doused in blue light, obliged the nostalgia with “If I ever lose my faith in you.” During which, of course, the Bay Area, (progressive/liberal/neoliberal), crowd went wild at the lyric “You can say I’ve lost my faith in politicians.”
Of the next 9 songs – plucked from both of their solo catalogues as well as that of Genesis and The Police – there was only one song that broke to the Top 10 of the US or UK charts (“Shock the Monkey” which was performed by Sting). The energy of the arena, though spiking in response to strong moments, was unfulfilled. Why two touring veterans would fashion a set list that lulled so heavily in its first hour remains a mystery. I saw some people packing up to leave and considered it myself, generally underwhelmed.
During that first hour there was a heavy (and welcome) load of political commentary from “Driven to Tears” and “Invisible Sun”, with Sting lamenting that, “Any reasonable person would be driven to tears, but it’s not enough. We need new vision in the world, more empathy, based on humanity.” The pair also commented on the Brexit vote which took place after the Rock Paper Scissors tour began. “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” conjured the ancient Celts as Gabriel moaned “Can you tell me where my country lies?”
Gabriel and Sting are both known for their activist work. Gabriel founded the human rights organization WITNESS in 1992 among other things. Sting co-founded The Rainforest Foundation with wife Trudie Styler in 1989. The two also toured together in 1988 as part of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! awareness raising tour along with Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour. That meeting inspired this tour many years later.
Teasing the crowd back towards the reason they’d come, “Message In A Bottle” whipped up a dancing, clapping, singing-along fervor. Then another few songs of deep cuts. When Gabriel sang the open lines of “Don’t Give Up” the crowd whooped with pleasure. This also brought us to a highlight of the night: backing vocalist Jennie Abrahamson stepping forward to sing the part made famous by the inimitable Kate Bush. Abrahamson’s rich and eccentric vocal styling was effortless, reeking of neither imitation nor exaggeration.
And then … the 18th song of the set … finally … out came “Big Time” and the Hit Parade began. From that moment until the end of the show the crowd nearly lost their minds. “Englishman in New York” went into “Solisbury Hill” into “Every Little Thing She Does” into “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” (Sting’s song covered by Gabriel) into “Roxanne” – with a minutes long meander through the classic Bill Withers‘ hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” before raucously returning to “Roxanne’s” chorus to the crowd’s ecstatic delight. Then, a moment of quiet as Gabriel paid a sorrowful tribute to slain British parliamentarian Jo Cox, with whom he attended a leadership training years ago. “This is for her,” he said, launching into “Love Can Heal.” The crowd responded to the moving moment by pulling out thousands of cell phone flashlights and waving them solemnly in the air.
Sting brought the crowd back to its feet with a rousing rendition of “Desert Rose” that enticed the ear with its overlapping East meets West musical influences. And then, finally, at last … “Your Eyes.” Sting sidled over to the backing vocalists and joined them. After all the night’s light play – blue for Sting, red for Peter, washing slowly purple and orange through the night – now they were under a huge rainbow, as if what was Two had become All. Abrahamson and Sting stepped center stage for a sing off, at the end of which Sting graciously bowed on one knee to Abrahamson, a smile beaming on his face. This last song had at least four endings, each one eliciting a louder and louder applaud from the crowd.
The encore scream was deafening, so of course the bands obliged with two final powerhouse tunes: Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” and Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” All hands were on deck for both of these songs. A little bit of choreography roused the crowd, as if to say “Yes, over 60 you can still be something of a pop star.”
The takeaway: more big stars should tour this way, weaving and intermingling their sets. Watching two legends lend talent to the other’s songs, and perform side by side was infinitely more satisfying than two separate sets. And the little things – Gabriel and his band sitting on the edge of the stage clapping and swaying through “Every Little Thing She Does” and Sting sidled up to Gabriel’s back up singers dancing side to side – made the experience feel like one of a kind.
The tour has only 4 dates remaining, including at the Hollywood Bowl tonight.
* The burrito by the way came from Zapata’s just a block away. A sign by their register read: “If you are unemployed and hungry, please feel free to ask for a free burrito.” Please give them your money if you’re in San Jose so they can keep helping hungry folks.
Written by Annie Bacon / @anniebacon
Photos by Victoria Smith / @bigvicsmith
This article, Peter Gabriel + Sting bring the Hit Parade to SAP Center in San Jose, first appeared on SF Critic.