The Police, NIA, Birmingham

More than just the Sting show
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The Independent Culture

Thirty years ago, The Police couldn't get arrested. Stewart Copeland had left progressive rockers Curved Air and persuaded Sting to quit his teaching job and his jazz fusion group, Last Exit, and to move from Newcastle to London.

The pair originally played behind David Bowie's former publicist, the punk wannabe Cherry Vanilla, but even when Andy Summers, a veteran who had played with Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne, replaced their guitarist Henry Padovani in August 1977, the trio were going nowhere fast. Copeland even charted with his punk alter ego, Klark Kent – remember "Don't Care"? – while the original 45s of "Roxanne" and "Can't Stand Losing You" languished in the bargain bins.

The Police looked like method punks and also-rans. But they refused to give up. In the autumn of 1978, they played every US dive Copeland's brothers could book them into, and began their meteoric rise. Within 15 months, they'd scored half a dozen hits and had two best-selling albums in the UK. In 1984, they went their separate ways and, despite a short-lived reunion attempt two years later, left us wanting more.

Until the end of last year, that is, when Sting woke to a voice in his head saying "reform The Police, that will really surprise everyone". Their world tour has so far played to about one million fans in North America and grossed close to $100m (£50m). Birmingham is only the fourth stop in Europe, after three dates in Scandinavia, but the group are already firing on all cylinders.

The heady rush of "Message in a Bottle" is an ideal opener and a statement of intent, pointing to a crowd-pleasing set that encompasses just about all the hits but also showcases some choice album tracks and gives the three musicians the chance to stretch out. Lithe and lean, in a white T-shirt and playing a battered bass, Sting still looks like Malcolm McDowell's evil brother. He jokes about the early days when the band only drew an audience of five in Birmingham, and admitted that "Don't Stand So Close to Me" is "a little bit autobiographical": the teacher in Sting could resist the schoolgirls but the songwriter in him knew what experiences to draw on.

Introducing cultural references to the likes of Nabokov – and then Arthur Koestler in other compositions – helped broaden the palette of pop and made up for the cod-patois "so me say" of the Police's early reggae-tinged material. In "Don't Stand" Sting also throws in a soulful ad lib, reminding you what a fine singer he can be. This is by no means the Sting show, though. As they segue from "Voices Inside My Head" into "When the World is Running Down" and drift into Ray Charles's "Hit the Road, Jack", their interplay becomes hypnotic. The way they can lock into a groove and then go off on a dubby odyssey is what makes them such a compelling live act.

Wearing glasses and white gloves for a better grip, Copeland can be an incorrigible show-off with his stick-throwing, gong, array of percussion and splash cymbals; he even drinks water while keeping a steady beat with his other hand during "Roxanne". But his polyrhythms drive the band on to always greater heights. He fully deserves Sting's accolade: the drummers' drummer. At 64, Summers is old enough to be a Rolling Stone, but he does the work of two guitarists, throwing in echoing chords one minute and soloing across the frets next. If anything, Sting is the most subdued of the three. Having got so much stick for trying to save the rainforests, he lets the photomontage of kids from war-torn areas of the world (by his friend Bobby Sager) do the talking, giving a new universal meaning to "Invisible Sun".

When the band encore with a genuinely affecting "King of Pain" and the brooding "Every Breath You Take", the couple in front of me are no longer holding hands. They're clapping along and beaming big smiles, mirrored by those onstage. The Police have gone back to square one, and even if they didn't quite match the highs of the Synchronicity tour I caught in 1983, they make the most of their chemistry. Sting has performed many of these songs throughout his solo career but Copeland and Summers still draw the best out of him. They are his "get out of jail" card.