Here's the main challenge facing a serious rock band reuniting after 23 years: You want to show the people that you (and your back catalog) still have the juice, but you also need to demonstrate that you've grown and changed as musicians. It's not easy, which is why most groups jumping on the reunion bandwagon simply trot out hits preserved in amber.
The still-great Police aspire to something even greater. Saturday night at Fenway Park (they also performed last night) the band aimed for -- and often found -- that elusive sweet spot between nostalgic singalongs and contemporary relevance.
The show opened with a bang: "Message in a Bottle" and "Synchronicity II," both crisp and jittery, fog machine cranked to 10. Sting stalked the stage in tight black jeans tucked into combat boots, and a carefully torn white T-shirt, while Andy Summers spun out subtly-textured shards of guitar and drummer Stewart Copeland played everything but the beat.
Back in the day the band's reggae-inflected rock was always this wiry and uncluttered -- hooky enough for the radio and brash enough to claim punk heritage -- and even when they grew more adventurous the songs sounded deceptively straightforward. Technical sophistication wasn't the main selling point for a trio of young Brits ushering in the New Wave. No matter how complex Copeland's polyrhythms or dense Summers's chord patterns, they still sounded like sharp pop tunes.
But now that the Police have got something else to prove, "Walking in Your Footsteps" morphed from icy electronics to double-time blues, and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" absorbed a sinewy, Middle Eastern flavor thanks to Copeland's occasional trips to his well-stocked percussion set, which included a giant gong and exotic chimes.
"Roxanne," sadly, stretched into a languid (read: dirgelike) jam, which felt more like a self-indulgent detour than a thrilling soundscape. And at times the repertoire seemed to have been infected by the easy, jazzy turn Sting has taken as a solo artist. The genius of "Don't Stand So Close to Me" was in the uneasy mix of the sinister and the innocent, but Saturday night smooth curves replaced the ominous edges of that song.
The Police broke up in 1984 due to creative and personal conflicts, but the discord that unraveled the band was also part of its dynamic chemistry. At the start of Saturday night's concert it was like watching three separate force fields -- each in its own orbit -- skillfully bouncing off one another. It wasn't until more than an hour in that the band members started playing in each other's pockets, during a luminous second half that included "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," "Invisible Sun," "King of Pain," "So Lonely," and "Every Breath You Take."
Sting's son Joe Sumner is the frontman and bass player in a British rock trio -- a career choice that seems dubious under the best circumstances and particularly sorry after sitting through Fiction Plane's generic opening set.