A Tale of Two Concerts: The Police and Vanessa Carlton

In recent months I’ve had the good fortune to take in a number of concerts by bands that I love. I want to talk about two in particular, both of which were excellent but vastly different experiences: The Police and Vanessa Carlton.

I saw The Police at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 8th, 2007. As you might gather, this was part of their reunion tour. Sting and The Police have long been among my favourite bands — I had seen Sting on tour with Annie Lennox back in the Fall of 2004 (a fantastic show), and figured that was the best I’d be able to do. I was glad to be wrong.

I had gotten the best (and thus most expensive) seats available, in one of the pre-sales. I figured I might as well go for the gusto, since I might not have any other chances to see them. Luckily, my girlfriend graciously considered her ticket an early birthday present, in return for the Billy Joel tickets she had gotten me for his Toronto show in April 2007. Anyway, the seats were good ones — but in a venue the size of the Air Canada Centre, there are good seats and great seats, all in the same price range, and these were only good. To see any real detail of the performers, I still had to rely on the projection screens. I’m sure I’ll figure out how to get the great seats one of these days.

Fiction Plane — a band fronted by Sting’s son Joe Sumner — opened for The Police. They seemed all right, although everyone was clearly waiting for the main event. The anticipation was palpable in the arena.

When Sting (Gordon Sumner), Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland took the state, that anticipation paid off. As the band started with “Message in a Bottle”, the crowd was electrified, the energy erupting from the stage and spreading through the audience in an expanding wave, pulling everyone to their feet. (I have long wondered if you could quantify the awesomeness of a band by calculating the range and distance of its ability to get an audience on its feet, but, alas, I do not have the resources to mount a study.)

Naturally, The Police played all of their expected hits, but not necessarily in their expected form. More than 20 years had passed since the band had toured together; each of them had pursued solo careers in that time, and — as was noted in the concert program — they should be better musicians now. Rather than tossing out straight live versions of their studio recordings, many of the songs were now musically richer, with complex solos and percussion sections, altered tempos, and lengthy instrumental fills. This completely transformed some songs — to the point where they were unrecognizable until the lyrics came in — but they still retained the core of the original embedded within them.

The songs largely blended together into an ongoing musical landscape, which is a testament to the quality of the experience they provide. I did have the presence of mind to take some notes, and thus can provide the full set list.

  1. Message in a Bottle
  2. Synchronicity II
  3. Walking on the Moon
  4. Voices Inside My Head
  5. Don’t Stand So Close To Me
  6. Driven to Tears
  7. Hole in My Life
  8. Truth Hits Everybody
  9. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
  10. Wrapped Around Your Finger
  11. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
  12. Invisible Sun
  13. Walking In Your Footsteps
  14. Can’t Stand Losing You
  15. Roxanne
  16. King of Pain
  17. So Lonely
  18. Every Breath You Take
  19. Next To You

As I said before, they performed all of the big hits, though they left a few for the encore. It was, in essence, everything that could be hoped for in a concert by The Police — energetic audience, fantastic performance, and excellent music. The only drawback was that it was an arena show — despite the good crowd, there were still more than 20,000 people there, most of whom were nowhere close to the stage and could only see anything worthwhile on the screens. Even with my good seats, there was a certain element of impersonality to it, that is endemic of all arena shows. Perhaps this impersonality isn’t there if you manage to get seats up really close, but I haven’t had a chance to figure that out just yet.

And thus we come to the second concert I want to talk about: Vanessa Carlton at Toronto’s Mod Club Theatre on November 23rd, 2007.

I have a strange relationship with Vanessa Carlton. I really enjoy her music, and have all three of her albums, but I’m sort of ashamed to admit that and I don’t know why. She has a unique sound, and though sometimes she’s a trifle saccharine, she has interesting lyrics and melodies — and she’s cute, to boot — so I don’t really know where this shame comes from, especially given some of the other music I enjoy *cough*Avril Lavigne*cough*.

Anyway, I had seen her at the same venue in the Fall of 2004 when she was touring with her second album, and quite enjoyed that show, despite the incredibly sucky opening act that pissed me off all the more because I had assignments due that I could have been working on instead of listening to them. Thus, even though I was really enjoying her new album, I was kind of iffy on seeing her again, given how busy I was at the time. I decided to go at the last minute, paid dramatically less for the ticket this show than the ones for The Police, and set out with some other people I knew to see her again. It was a decision I would not regret, as she put off a great — albeit short — show.

Admittedly, I was in a better mood right from the start at this latest concert, with no deadlines looming the next day, and the opening act was decently inoffensive. Still, when Vanessa finally took the stage, it was a welcome sight. She started with “Nolita Fairytale”, the first track and single from her latest album Heroes & Thieves, and once she got going, her fantastically smooth and strong voice wrapped the audience up and dragged us in. I had never seen anyone swoon before, but the other guy in the group I was with literally swooned for her.

She necessarily performed slightly altered versions of her songs — she only had a guitarist as back-up, whereas her album tracks are typically heavily orchestrated. In a lot of young performers, this lack of studio support would lead to a rather anemic stage presence, but Vanessa Carlton’s piano-focussed and lyrically melodic songs worked surprisingly well in the more minimalistic staging of the the Mod Club.

She played mostly from her new album, and in fact performed most of it, hitting nine of its eleven tracks, and then taking her biggest songs from previous albums to round it out. By my recollection, she only did fourteen songs (listed in no particular order below), and performed for a little more than an hour.

  • Nolita Fairytale
  • Hands On Me
  • Ordinary Day
  • A Thousand Miles
  • My Best
  • Who’s To Say
  • White Houses
  • The One
  • C’est La Vie
  • Half a Week Before the Winter
  • Heroes & Thieves
  • Fools Like Me
  • Home
  • More Than This

I really liked her first album, so I wished she had done a few more besides “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day”, but as is often the case, the songs I like best are probably the least popular and thus least likely to show up in concerts. Fortunately, I was more than satisfied with the songs she did perform, and my only complaint was that I was left wanting more.

Part of my absolute enjoyment of this show certainly came from the venue — the Mod Club is a much smaller (and thus more intimate) concert space. We were able to get up close and get a good view, without even having to push through crowds of young girls at the stage. Vanessa’s voice and stage presence filled the room, and wrapped around us and pulled us in to an intensely personal experience as she attacked the piano keys and poured her heart into her vocals. While I’m sure she’d love to be able to fill arenas with tens of thousands of screaming fans — and while I wish her all the success she desires — I’m kind of glad that she’s still at a point where she’s playing smaller venues.

A smaller venue is the only thing that can guarantee that intimacy that I so enjoyed about the show. Even if my mind were inclined to wander, the proximity and the intensity of the performance would command my attention, and in that respect, it makes me feel like I’m part of the performance myself. I get some of that feeling in larger arena shows — especially if it is one of my favourite bands — but a smaller show always feels warmer and more inclusive. Alas, I suppose it would be wrong of me to begrudge them their success and wish for my favourite bands to be washed up and reduced to touring tiny venues.

This contrast between venues and the affect it has on my impressions of a show really stood out after seeing The Police and Vanessa Carlton mere weeks apart. While both were excellent shows, the intimacy of the show in the smaller venue has me wondering whether I should explore more such performances with bands I’m less familiar with. Recommendations are most welcome.