Sting, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

By his own admission Sting had experienced a difficult two weeks before tonight's performance.

By his own admission Sting had experienced a difficult two weeks before tonight's performance. The cancellation of a series of shows, after being "attacked by a virus which would not let go", may have humbled the most celebrated athlete in the middle-age rock pantheon. But not for long.

He sings the opening number "Send Your Love" unencumbered by an instrument; all the better to display his yogically enhanced physique. The screens behind show a series of multi-ethnic dancers. Luxuriating in the song's thumping beats and vocoder vocals, Sting's gyrates like a flamenco dancer.

The display elicits hoots of appreciation and spontaneous applause from the faithful. But in the selections from last year's Sacred Love album that follow, the latter-day Sting tendency towards musical gentrification takes hold - and won't let go.

Even worse is the low level of inspiration apparent in the faux jazz swagger of "Forget About The Future", a song so smug it could have arrived in an open-top designer sports car with a personalised number plate. On the screens, mini-skirted Austin Powers-style dolly birds manhandle brass instruments, at the side of the stage stands a suited security guard looking unfortunately like his royal Stingness's footman.

The lack of engagement continues in the mellow musical mineral bath that is "Dead Man's Rope". A riveting leap back in time to the conceptually linked but far more vital Police era "Synchronicity II" provides an urgent, much-needed wake up call. Driving his band with low slung electric bass, Sting jokes: "I wrote that song when I was 12," and it certainly has a vitality absent from his newer material.

A polished professional, consummate musician and affecting vocalist he may be, yet Sting does much to reinforce his reputation for aloofness. When he puts his band through their paces in extended instrumental passages such as set closer "Never Coming Home", it's technically admirable but lacking in the warmth and generosity that make such displays meaningful.

Metaphors don't come heavier handed than his introduction to "This War" where posters of warplanes and people carrying "Don't Do Nothing" banners fill the screens. Seemingly unable to help himself, he prefaces "Stolen Car", reconfigured as a particular messy rock soap opera, with an explanation that is simply condescending.

Although the double bass lead rearrangement of "Walking On The Moon" embraces rather than overcomes the tedium of an old chestnut, there are moments when Sting's subtle star shines. "Fragile", "Fields Of Gold", "Every Breath You Take" and "Roxanne" form a perfectly poised pop master class presenting his world view with refinement and clarity.

It was a night which presented the many sides of Sting - resonant poet, manipulative schemer and the affirmative, crowd-galvanising rocker.

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