There was no earthly reason for Sting and Shaggy to release an album together in 2018 other than that Sting and Shaggy thought it would be fun to release an album together in 2018, and there is no earthly reason for Sting and Shaggy to be jointly flogging that album together on the road five months after its release other than that Sting and Shaggy still appear to be having rather a lot of fun together.
No one sat down in a record-company boardroom and concocted 44/876, the collaborative curiosity hatched to worldwide bemusement this past April by the Newcastle-raised former Police frontman and the Jamaican-born reggae-lite hitmaker responsible for such turn-of-the-millennium earworms as “Boombastic” and “It Wasn’t Me.” No conniving label executives came together and decreed: “Sting and Shaggy, together. This is what the kids are looking for right now.” No conniving label executives even deluded themselves into thinking that an album by Sting and Shaggy, together, was what the old people who still actually buy records in 2018 were looking for right now because, frankly, no one was, or ever has been, looking for an album by Sting and Shaggy, together.
That said, the grudging consensus amongst most critics , myself included, who’ve actually brought themselves to listen to 44/876 – named, on the off chance you haven’t figured it out already, for the transatlantic country codes from which its two creators hail (although they both currently live in New York) – seems to be that it isn’t quite as dreadful as you’d imagine. Dreadful, yes, but mostly harmless and endearingly convivial. A “cheery abomination of an album,” the NME called it, getting it exactly right.
The same spirit applied to Sting and Shaggy’s sold-out-to-the-point-of-bursting Toronto gig at the Phoenix on Friday night. It really wasn’t as dreadful as you’d imagine. Or, to put it another way, it was dreadful in a mostly enjoyable way. As much as one might have had a voice screaming “This shouldn’t be!” in one’s head for the duration of the two-hour performance, the odd couple onstage were having such a laugh together it was hard not to occasionally give in and have a laugh along with them.
Opener “Englishman in New York” set the tone for the rest of the evening. Sting and the versatile “house band” — guitarists Dominic Miller and Rufus Miller and gadabout drummer Josh Freese from the Sting camp, backing vocalists Melissa Musique and Gene Noble and keyboardist Kevon Webster from Shaggy’s crew — served up a vaguely reggae-fied arrangement of the old … Nothing Like the Sun chestnut, while Shaggy would ride in at odd (occasionally awkward) moments to “toast,” double the vocals on the chorus or amend the lyrics to fit the occasion, ie. switch the refrain to “I’m a Jamaican in New York.” And although Friday’s set list lent noticeably more heavily on Sting’s already often vaguely reggae-fied catalogue than Shaggy’s, the “fusion” went both ways, with Sting offering very Sting-like “Waaaaay-oooooohs” in the background on “Oh Carolina” (mashed up with Sting’s “We’ll Be Together”) and “Angel” and, of course, a jubilant version of “It Wasn’t Me” that very nearly brought the greying house down towards the end of the set.
Novelty went a long way. The spectacle of Sting with his own hype man to stoke the crowd during the lulls in “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Message in a Bottle” and “So Lonely” was far more amusing than it should have been, for instance, and while the world hasn’t exactly been thirsting for a medley of “Roxanne” and “Boombastic,” it was interesting to witness the experiment just once. Shaggy’s presence has certainly shaken Sting loose from the tight-assed pretension that’s dogged much of his latter-years solo work, and the fact that neither appeared to be treating the gig as anything more than the friendly lark it was made it altogether bearable. The pair even donned goofy costumes for the 44/876 convict tale “Crooked Tree,” Sting sporting prison stripes and Shaggy rockin’ the mike in a powdered magistrate’s wig. They’re in on the joke.
And, hey, there were moments of greatness befitting all the talent assembled onstage amidst the whimsy. Sting’s a deft player and can hold down a reggae bassline with the best of them, and the new Sting/Shaggy cuts “Waiting for the Break of Day” — a genuinely wiggly keeper from 44/876 — and the boom-bappin’ “Gotta Get Back My Baby” benefited accordingly, as did a thoroughly groovy version of his tropical solo hit “Love is the Seventh Wave.” “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free),” his first-ever solo single, was transformed into a limber, disco-tastic romp on Friday, too, and came off a proper banger. “Walking on the Moon” mashed into Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” was also fun in a cheeseball kinda way.
The only real moments of dreariness came when things got serious on more sombre Sting material like “Fields of Gold” and “Desert Rose,” both of which seemed thoroughly out of place in context. We didn’t need a Sting/Shaggy duet version of “Every Breath You Take,” either, but I suppose it was as inevitable as it was inevitably awful. At least the whole show wasn’t as inevitably awful as one might have feared. You got away with it, lads. Now go back to your mansions and leave us alone