Every touring artist panders to the city he’s performing in, but Sting seemed genuine when he called Austin “the hippest town in America” at the top of his set at ACL Live on Sunday. “I owe a lot to Austin,” he said, explaining that an Austin station “LBJ” (presumably KLBJ) was the first radio outlet in America to play the Police’s single “Roxanne” in 1979. Shortly after, he said, he played his first Austin gig, at the Armadillo World Headquarters.
But the warm reminiscence was not the lead in to a snoozy trip down memory lane. Forty years into his career, the 65-year-old British artist might not be jumping as high as he used to or sustaining those high notes quite as long, but in a roughly ninety minute set that mixed songs from his 2016 album “57th and 9th” with a host of back catalog faves, he proved he still has the chops to deliver a thrilling set of strobe enhanced, gut punch rock ‘n’ roll. He also reminded us he has one of the most distinctive voices in popular music and he’s one of rock’s greatest storytellers.
The show had an unorthodox structure. Sting opened with an acoustic version of “Heading South on the Great North Road” off his most recent album. Then he turned the stage over to his eldest son, Joe Sumner, who did a three-song acoustic set followed by a quick set from the Last Bandoleros, a young San Antonio act. Sting and his band joined the Bandoleros, a Tejano rock outfit that he described as a “cross between Los Lobos and the Monkees,” for their final song, then they stuck around to do back ups on his set. Not a bad look for a crew who just dropped their debut EP last month.
For the main part of his set Sting moved back and forward through time, with the classics from his days with the Police earning the biggest crowd response. He kicked off with the one-two Police combo “Synchronicity II” and “Spirits In the Material World” before shifting into a pair of more introspective solo numbers, “Englishman in New York” and one of the new tracks “Can’t Stop Thinking About You.”
The set had a warm familial feel. Not only was Sting’s son singing backups (along with the Bandoleros), his longtime guitarist Dominic Miller had his own son Rufus Miller playing rhythm guitar.
The performance showcased Sting’s versatility and his broad spectrum of influences from jazz to punk. At one point he took his song “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” which scored him a country hit when he recorded it as a duet with Toby Keith in 1997, and reimagined it as a reggae song. “The Shape of My Heart” was a gorgeous slice of adult contemporary pop and an explosive version of “S.O.S.” drew one of the biggest responses of the night. Sting seemed genuinely humbled by the crowd that cheered so wildly for so long. He explained that he wrote the song 40 years ago, alone in a basement with his dog, and that he never takes it for granted that it still affects so many people around the world today.
He closed the main part of the set with a beautiful mashup of “Roxanne” and the Bill Withers soul classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
The auditorium erupted in wild applause and he returned to encore with “Next to You” and “Every Breath You Take.”
With the crowd was still going wild, he returned again. This time he sat alone on stage and played his Oscar nominated song “The Empty Chair” written for the documentary “Jim: The James Foley Story.” He explained that the song was written about Foley, an American journalist who was captured and beheaded by ISIS in Syria in 2014, for a film so intense and important he doubted his ability to do it justice. After avoiding politics all night, he ended on a somber note, asking us to remember that “at a time when truth itself is under attack, this man, Jim Foley, died to tell the truth.”