Sting and Peter Gabriel Trade Hits, Covers During Three-Hour Tour Kickoff

Peter Gabriel and Sting
Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

Peter Gabriel and Sting perform on stage during the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" tour opener at Nationwide Arena on June 21, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.  

What do you get when you unite two socially-conscious British frontmen-turned-solo-artists known for bridging pop and world music? On Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio, you got Peter Gabriel and Sting sharing a stage and top billing in the three-hour greatest hits tag team kick-off of The Rock Paper Scissors tour at Nationwide Arena, which was long on moody resiliency and arty grandeur.

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After opening the evening with Gabriel’s “The Rhythm of the Heat” (off 1982’s Security) and Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” (off 1993’s Ten Summoner’s Tales), the two convened in the middle of the stage.

Gabriel, wearing a monk-ish black hoodie (hat down), explained that because of the different heritages of their U.K. origins, “by the end of tour he’s going to teach me to build a ship, and I’m going to teach him to milk a cow.” Sting said that as they’d spent the last two weeks rehearsing in Columbus, he and Gabriel considered themselves “honorary Columbus-ians” to a roar of approval from the near sell-out crowd.

Clad in a simple black shirt with small Amnesty International pin on his right breast, Sting pointed to the competing red and blue color schemes for their individual backing players, describing the night as a “Battle of the Bands.” The format for the evening emerged organically, with Sting explaining: “We got together in a big room and Peter played a song and then I played one.” And that’s pretty much how it unfolded for the veteran rock icons and their more than a dozen backing players.

For more than three hours they traded numbers, sometimes sharing vocal duties and offering accompaniment, other times ceding the stage, and on a couple occasions covering each other’s songs. Gabriel took a stab at Sting’s first big solo hit, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” while Sting used the first bit of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” (off 1973’s Selling England By the Pound by Gabriel’s old band, Genesis) as a lead-in to a powerful version of “Message In a Bottle.”

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Both artists were in fine voice, and moving well, as evidenced by shared numbers like Gabriel’s terrific “Games Without Frontiers,” where the two danced across the stage trading stanzas, with Sting’s crisp vocals giving his verses added zing. At one point, Gabriel even did something of a military march, keenly appropriate to a song which conflates our flighty passions and predilection for war.

The artists’ bands alone and in unison created a rich, warm sound that never went over the top. The three percussionists did a nice job of bringing both singer's supple world rhythms to life, and both backing vocalists did well in their duet turns, particularly on Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” recently covered by John Legend and Pink.

Many of Sting’s finest moments came when he reached back into the Police catalog for tracks like the pert “Walking In Your Footsteps,” a particularly evocative “Invisible Sun,” and, of course, “Roxanne.” Among the solo highlights was a touching take on “Englishman in New York.” While Gabriel’s come a long way since dressing up as a flower for Genesis’ 1969 bible parable/debut album, From Genesis to Revelations, he’s still quite spry, bouncing around the stage for several of the more upbeat numbers, notably “Big Time,” which hasn’t lost any luster in 30 years.

Other Gabriel highlights included “Solsbury Hill,” “Red Rain,” and “In Your Eyes.” The latter found the women all around us pulling their boyfriends out of their seats to dance, for which we can probably thank John Cusack and Cameron Crowe (who famously featured the song in the romantic comedy Say Anything.)

After a two hour and forty-five minute performance, the pair returned for an encore of their biggest individual hits, “Every Breath You Take” and “Sledgehammer,” respectively, for a proper exclamation point.