The question Sunday night, before an adulatory crowd at BB&T Pavilion, was: "OK, Peter Gabriel, 66, and Sting, 64, are here on tour together, the Rock Paper Scissors Tour. So what are these old gents going to do?"
In a buddy-buddy chat at the start of the show, Gabriel had an answer: "We weren't sure how we're going to do this. . . . We're not leaving the stage, basically."
They didn't. Sting seemed changeless: He and the gym have been very good to each other. Gabriel was in some weird black running suit, which one attendant called "Pope Francis noir." Backed by a "blue team" and a "red team" of a dozen fabulous musicians, on a stage stacked with drum sets and keyboards, they played it straight-up: hits, anthems, dance tunes, and deep tracks. For two fascinating, often superb hours, they team-sang, soloed, or laid out, depending on the tune, in a show that combined the offhand and the high-tech.
It was fascinating to hear Sting's words as sung by Gabriel and vice versa. Sting put a wry spin on verses in "No Self Control." "Kiss That Frog" got a Sting arrangement, with Sting singing lead. In one of the most intriguing highlights, Gabriel took over a Sting tune, "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free," which always tried way too hard, and improved it, swampy, soulful.
Would Gabriel's penchant for dark, ponderous showstoppers cripple the pace? Or could Sting goose the proceedings with his wired, muscular rockers? The crowd - mostly older, with plenty of kids along who'd grown up listening to their parents' records - longed to dance, and did, but the set was built to prevent runaway partying. Too much deep thought was to be done. With Gabriel singing along in full commitment, Sting dedicated "Fragile" to the memory of those killed in Orlando: "The only way to counter unspeakable hatred is by empathy and solidarity." And Gabriel dedicated a new tune, "Love Can Heal," to his friend Jo Cox, a British politician assassinated before the Brexit vote.
But they also did what Gabriel called "karaoke in Camden." The crowd knew every word of "In Your Eyes" (particularly moving), "Red Rain," and "Don't Give Up" (with beautiful singing by longtime Gabriel bandmate Jennie Abrahamson). Sting shone in a "Roxanne"/"Ain't No Sunshine" medley. "Message in a Bottle," with the crowd in delirious sing-along, and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," even more so, reached the highest energy of the night, followed by "In Your Eyes," with Gabriel's odd choreography and an ululation agon between Abrahamson and Sting; and "Shock the Monkey."
Each of their bandmates - among them bass god Tony Levin, astonishing violinist Peter Tickell, Philly-born drummer Vinny Colaiuta, stunning vocalist Jo Lawry (especially on "The Hounds of Winter"), and the great David Sancious on keyboards - got a turn in the spotlight.
After a fake exit (Gabriel: "This is where we pretend to go home"), the encore was "Every Breath You Take" and the inevitable, suitably percussive "Sledgehammer." That segue was like most of the show: You wouldn't have thought it would work, but it did.