Sting's starring role...
First and foremost it must be said that this was Sting's first night and it would be churlish to take anything away from his triumphant return to his home town. He's fought his way to the top of a very high-risk profession with his sanity intact and he fully deserved his own night of glory.
And it was typical of his and the Police's attitude that they should play their two shows at Newcastle's City Hall - at the end of two years gruelling touring that has taken in places hitherto untouched by the rock and roll circus - for charity. Integrity isn't easy to keep once the bandwagon starts careering along and everyone from the scarf-sellers outside the gig to the promoter is leaping on your back for a quick ride but the Police have done their very best. Good guys can win sometimes.
But the gig itself failed to hit me the way Police usually do. I'd better qualify this at once (if only to stem the shoals of letters from ardent fans at the slightest sign of criticism) by saying that my old lady, who was seeing the group for the first time, enjoyed every moment.
I suspect that, like her, a good proportion of the audience were also seeing the band for the first time. The hard core fans didn't seem to have tickets - probably because of the nature of the gig and the way the tickets were distributed - and it robbed the occasion of the electric atmosphere that accompanied the band on their pre-Christmas British tour.
The other problem was that I get off on Police as a trio and this concert was definitely Sting plus Stewart and Andy. The follow spots scarcely left Sting for a second and he was frequently exhorting the crowd to do it 'one more time for me'. As I said at the start I didn't begrudge him any of the acclaim he got and wanted the audience to respond more vigorously than they did. But the special circumstances and the fact that the gig was being recorded for Radio One conspired to make the rock and roll a little self-conscious.
Sting was determined to get the crowd moving right at the start by telling them: "You're not pensioners you know" and running through the first two tracks of 'Outlandos d'Amour' while the sound man got the balance sorted out. Towards the end of 'So Lonely', as they entered the realms of white dub, Sting's beleaguered larynx received some assistance in the form of a delayed echo effect.
The sound finally reached a ringing density during 'Walking On The Moon' and suddenly the audience was bathed in light as they sang along. The visual impact spurred the band on and Andy toyed with the varying intensity levels of 'Deathwish' with relish.
The gem of the evening for my money (correction, free ticket - let's be honest about it!) was 'Bring On The Night' which was performed with immaculate control before Andy let loose with a blistering solo in the middle. They followed it up with the one new song of the evening called (I think) 'Driven To Tears' which boogied along in a relaxed vein with a characteristic 'yo yo' chorus.
'The Bed's Too Big Without You' normally sends me into a delicious reverie with its hypnotic rhythms and echoed guitar but tonight it was as if somebody had smeared Andy's fingers with acid. He wrenched the number out of its complacency with some harsh and abrasive playing that sounded at the end as if he was having a visitation from the ghost of Syd Barrett.
From then on the hits piled in on top of one another relentlessly, mainly kept free from embellishment with the surprising exception of 'Roxanne'. (I remember Stewart saying they weren't going to fool around with that song any more but it still seems able to take it!). The snores took them back to their punk roots with 'Peanuts', 'Born in the 50s' and finally 'Fall Out'. Ah nostalgia isn't what it used to be!
But even if I wasn't bowled over by the gig there was nothing to suggest any cause for alarm. Their ability to jam on any song at a moment's notice is undiminished and the songs continue to pass through changes which means that every concert offers something new. There are times when I fear for Sting's voice which has been subjected to awesome strain and is clearly suffering as a result. Fortunately the strain is built into his style but with luck he'll never have to punish it as badly as he has over the past year or so.
The next stop is the third album. Whenever you're ready boys...
© Sounds by Hugh Fielder
Ticket image courtesy of Dietmar & Raphael