During a tour with Peter Gabriel this past summer, Sting dropped in a hefty excerpt of Genesis classic “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” at the head of Police favorite “Message in a Bottle.” It was a reminder that Sting—who plays the Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan on New Year’s Eve—has always been a different kind of rock star, a true fan of music and the process of making it. Even way back in 1985, when documentary Bring on the Night chronicled the start of his solo career, he seemed to be enjoying his interactions and collaborations with his new bandmates as much as his role as their bandleader.
Sting, of course, spent his formative musical years in The Police. That power trio, which also featured drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers, built a legend in less than a decade, moving from vans and clubs to planes and stadiums by the time it broke apart after wrapping a two-year tour behind Synchronicity in 1984. Looking back now, it seems obvious Copeland and Sting couldn’t coexist forever. They were still getting shots in when The Police catalog was collected for 1993’s Message in a Box. Discussing “Tea in the Sahara,” Sting said, “I think we played it too fast on the album and live,” to which Copeland quipped, “Sting thought everything was too fast.” But whatever tension might have existed seemed to feed into the music in all the right ways. The Police were a fierce live act, barreling through 12 songs in little more than an hour during a 1979 performance in Chicago, which opened and closed with intense takes of “Can’t Stand Losing You.”
Sting’s subsequent solo career has given him full freedom to control the tempo, and 1985’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles revealed his love for jazz—in which he has continued to dabble in the years since. It would take a double album’s worth of songs to share everything that he’d been musically pondering for 1987’s ...Nothing Like the Sun. The loss of his father found him digging ever deeper with 1991’s The Soul Cages, and the aftershocks were still present on Ten Summoner’s Tales in 1993, although the upbeat mood of many of its tracks suggested Sting had begun to find his way back to the light.
Since then, the veteran songwriter has at least kept things interesting. Sometimes the boat drifts a little too far from the dock—general reaction wasn’t favorable when he brought the lute to the forefront on 2006’s Songs From the Labyrinth—but it’s admirable Sting continues seeking out new avenues. Discussing his rock-oriented new album, 57th and 9th, with Rolling Stone (“It’s not a lute album”), he revealed what we have long known to be true. “For me, the most important element in all music is surprise. I’ll keep throwing curveballs,” he said. “It’s my journey; people are welcome to share it with me. I really do what the f*ck I want.”
Sting December 31, 9 p.m., $200. The Chelsea, 702-698-7000.