These foolish Stings...
Despite The Police's best intentions, Sting's 'homecoming' gigs have never really done the group justice. Two years ago in Newcastle City Hall at the end of a long and gruelling world tour, Sting's voice was hoarse to the point of extinction. Last weekend at Gateshead Athletics Stadium, they played their first major live gig for several months and were predictably stiff-limbed for much of the set.
The weather and the attendance didn't help much either. Grey clouds hung low overhead all day although they managed to refrain from dropping their contents. And while the organisers spoke optimistically of twelve and half thousand ticket sales, there never seemed to be more than half that number present.
Whatever the real figure, the stadium looked depressingly empty, offering further evidence that it was the Rolling Stones who mopped up this summer's rock and roll crowd allocation. There's a low limit to the number of £8.30 tickets you can buy on the dole.
Open air rock shows need a certain amount of nostalgia to make up for the lack of comfort but the 1977-style nostalgia served up by the Lords Of The New Church who opened the show wasn't the right kind. The impression was of a bunch of first wave punks thrashing around for a formula, having been overtaken by the second, third, fourth and fifth waves.
The Gang Of Four weren't exactly a laugh a minute either. I actually thought they played a very good set - and their new lady bassist has added a lot more strength to the rhythm section - but their serious intellectual posturings were badly mismatched with this audience.
It took the Beat to bring things to life with their own lively brand of 2-Tone nostalgia. They've held on to the original spirit of enthusiasm and entertainment with an uncomplicated joy that none of the genuine 2-Tone bands managed to maintain.
You'd have to have a long mac down to your ankles to resist their infectious style and if they've not yet been able to top 'Mirror In The Bathroom' as their finest moment, they give you a highly enjoyable build-up to it.
U2 took advantage of the day's upswing to reinforce the numerous claims made on their behalf to be 'the next big thing'. Currently cooped up in the country getting their third album together, they exploded with a barrage of pent-up energy that no amount of pastoral activity can fulfil.
Bono demonstrated his sudden sense of release quite literally by scaling the PA stack beside the stage and crowning it with a white flag that he'd plucked from the audience, singing 'Electric Co' all the while. "There's only one flag and that's a white flag," he announced with a defiantly peaceful fervour for these aggressive times.
There were no real surprises from the band but the final couple of numbers - 'I Will Follow' and 'Out Of Control' - plus the 'Celebration' encore had an irresistible force born of a group chemistry that's bubbled into the most precious of rock and roll commodities - charisma.
The Police have already got their rewards for that very quality. Their problem now is to hang on to their status by delicately juggling their trademarks to stop the band members from becoming gross caricatures of themselves. They had no new songs to offer and the set was similar to the one they toured with at the end of last year, but the addition of the brass trio to their line-up has given them a new impetus live which they haven't exhausted yet.
There was an air of caution about 'Message In A Bottle' and 'Every Little Things She Does Is Magic' but 'Walking On The Moon' managed to blow some of the cobwebs away and Sting started to put a bit more vehemence into Spirits In The Material World, 'Hungry For You' (which he eloquently introduced as being 'about f**king') and 'When The World Is Running Down'.
Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland had limbered into shape by the time 'Demolition Man' came along and with the brass section never showing any inhibitions, they got increasingly better from that point.
If 'Shadows In The Rain' fell short of its possibilities, 'Bring On The Night' benefited from another turn of the screw - it's become one of their most adaptable and durable numbers. And the final batch of oldies satisfied the audience, some of whom were a bit dubious of the 'new fangled stuff' from 'Ghost In The Machine'.
But virtually all the stage effects the Police tried were wasted by their failure to have a backdrop behind them which meant that all the smoke blew straight out the back while most of their light show was rendered useless.
Sting was in a somewhat bellicose mood when he wasn't filling us in on his Geordie childhood. He introduced Andy Summers as 'The Sun's mystery blonde' and called the Daily Mail 'Nosy Bastards', not to mention lambasting his recent legal opponents. If it gives him a new cutting edge and pushes the Police forward to their next album in a suitably aggressive spirit then hopefully the money will have been well spent.
But he should start coming to terms with the fact that he's lost any private life and he'd be unwise to make much of a vendetta out of it with the media. I mean, even the girl that Bono plucked out of the audience to dance with him at the end of U2's set was called Trudie.
© Sounds by Hugh Fielder (with thanks to Dietmar)
Ticket from Dave & Wendy