Friday Night: Sting At The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

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Sting with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion June 25, 2010

"If you love somebody," Sting once sang, "set them free." Friday night at the Woodlands, he set a good two dozen of his songs free from their original arrangements, and set himself free from the burden of having to sing "Message In a Bottle" and "We'll Be Together" on yet another tour. Fronting a full-fledged symphony orchestra will have that effect.

The idea of Sting taking an orchestra on the road with him - not to mention one he remarked he had "borrowed from the Queen" - doesn't seem like it would do much to diminish his somewhat self-important reputation. But in fact he was relaxed and self-deprecating all night, introducing many of the lesser-known songs with amusing and occasionally poignant anecdotes.

Before "The End of the Game," he explained how he never understood the old British custom of fox-hunting until he became a farmer and his own chicken coop was raided - "they got every fuckin' one" - and prefaced "I Hung My Head" by explaining how his love of TV westerns like Bonanza led to his interest in country music, and how honored he was that Johnny Cash covered the song on one of his last albums, 2002's American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Indeed, Sting's best-known songs were generally the ones that benefited the least from their new orchestral context. Most were either already adorned by expanded accompaniment on their album versions, like snappy opener "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You" and the lush but oddly curt "Fields of Gold," or simply not meant to be played with strings and woodwinds, like a slowed-down "Roxanne" that came across as the theme to some cheesy telenovela. (The aggressive tango "Straight to My Heart" was a much more effective Latin-tinged arrangement.)

However, both "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and especially "King of Pain" benefited from the added orchestral heft, with conductor Stephen Mercutio - who both looked and conducted like "The Maestro" from that eponymous episode of Seinfeld - often signaling crescendos by literally jumping up and down. Others signaled the sometime actor's interest in Hollywood scores: "Hung My Head" echoed longtime Western composer Dimitri Tiomkin's dusty grandeur; the driving "Desert Rose" had flashes of Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia score.

Elsewhere, "Next to You" and "She's Too Good for Me" let longtime guitarist Dominic Miller cut loose over souped-up rockabilly swing, "When We Dance" and "All Would Envy" were Sinatra in the wee small hours of the morning, "Englishman In New York" introduced George Gershwin to Jimmy Cliff via a splashy clarinet solo, and the spectral "You Will Be My Ain True Love" floated into the open air on Jo Laurie's stirring vocals. "Fragile," which Sting dedicated to the casualties (both human and animal) of the BP oil spill, ended the evening with a bittersweet flamenco flavor thanks to Miller's piercing leads.

Most impressive, though, was "Russians," which in fact had the least distance to travel of any of Friday's songs. Originally based on a passage from Sergei Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije suite, the song from 1985's The Dream of the Blue Turtles was as glowering and portentous as the Cold War paranoia it was meant to invoke.

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