Two music legends — British rocker Sting and reggae superstar Shaggy — teamed up in 2018 for a new album, followed by a tour, which made it stops in Atlanta Monday night, September 17 at The Tabernacle. While very different performers, they aren’t so stylistically separate as you might at first think. The Police, the band that brought Sting to global prominence in the early 80s, had strong reggae leanings. Partnering with Shaggy at this point in his career brings him back to his reggae roots.
The 44/876 album was released on April 20 (very appropriately 420, being a Reggae album). The title represents a bridging of two different cultures — “44” being the international dialing code for the United Kingdom and “876” being the area code for Jamaica. That spirit of unity was evident throughout the evening on Monday, with the two artists sharing the spotlight and adding their distinctive flair to each other’s songs in the two-hour (almost to the minute) set.
Setting the tone for the rest of the show was the surprisingly bouncy opener, Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” with Shaggy taking a verse to sing about being a “Jamaican in New York.” From there the small but incredibly tight band launched into the first two tracks from 44/876, the excellent title track and the breezy “Morning is Coming”.
Sting was most definitely the dominant presence, with almost half the setlist pulled from his massive back catalog of both solo and Police singles, plus him singing lead and playing bass on all the songs from 44/876. One of the most rewarding things about this tour is seeing a Sting that, away from his normal role as solo artist, was looser, much more casual, joking around with Shaggy and just being “one of the blokes” for a change. But while Sting was rooted mostly to one spot by microphone and pedals, Shaggy was free to prowl the stage, trading vocal licks with Sting, interacting with the musicians, hyping up the crowd, and thrusting his pelvis with every “boom boom boom.” And while he may not have the extensive resume of hits that Sting has, his career was still well represented with songs that the audience knew and sang along to.
Some of the show’s best moments came when songs from different sources were unexpectedly paired up or combined. Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” segued effortlessly into Sting’s “We’ll Be Together”, while Sting’s “Love is the Seventh Wave” dovetailed seamlessly into “To Love and Be Loved” from 44/876. The show’s finale was a crowd-pleasing mashup of Police classic “Roxanne” with Shaggy’s 1995 smash, “Boombastic”. The show was very low on theatrics, relying solely on great music being played by a great band. The centerpiece of the show, however, was the song “Crooked Tree” from 44/876, a dialogue between judge and convict. On stage, a uniformed policeman sequestered Sting, had him don the black and white striped garb of a prisoner, while Shaggy took the stage in judges robe, white wig and gavel. It was a playful moment for an otherwise somber song.
Along the way, the group featured seven of the songs from the new album, all of which translated easily to a live setting with great energy and infectious hooks, and even if some audience members hadn’t picked up the album yet, the songs are so easily accessible (as my buddy Josh says, “they’re catchy as hell”) that no one would have felt left behind by them. And even then, it would only be a song or two before another well-known tune came along, like “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”, “Angel”, “Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic”, “Strength of a Woman”, “Message in a Bottle”, “So Lonely” or “Hey Sexy Lady.” The pair paid homage to their reggae roots by name-checking Bob Marley in the song “44/876” and by performing that most anthemic of reggae tunes, “Get Up, Stand Up”.
Special recognition must be given to the band behind the two front men. A combination of members from both artists’ touring bands — Dominic Miller (guitar), Josh Freese (drums) and Rufus Miller (guitar) from Sting’s band, and Melissa Musique (backing vocals), Gene Noble (backing vocals) and Kevon Webster (keyboards) from Shaggy’s entourage. Melissa and Gene were both lead singer material and put on a show all their own with their dancing, and both were given moments in the spotlight at the foot of the stage for solo bits. As a drummer myself, I particularly enjoyed watching Freese’s expert playing, a technically proficient drummer with a subtle and very musical touch. He took the opportunity to let loose in the post-chorus transitions in The Police’s “Walking on the Moon.” In addition to being superb players, the two guitarists playfully interacted with the audience and the other band members. Only keyboardist Webster really didn’t have much of a featured presence in the show, getting overshadowed a bit by the more flamboyant performers.
After two hours of hit after hit, the evening wrapped up with two encore sets. The first featured Sting’s “Desert Rose”, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, and the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” The band took the stage one last time for a very quiet close to an otherwise rambunctious evening with a cover of Harry Belafonte’s “A Jamaican Farewell” and Sting’s “Fragile.”
If you’ve not checked out 44/876, give it a listen on iTunes or Spotify, or pick up the CD. It’s a fabulous album of great grooves, positive messages, and contagious energy. And if you get the chance to see this show on another stop on the tour, go. You owe it to yourself. It’ll be one of the most fun nights you will have had in a long time.