A superb array of musical talent and some great songs ensured that The Last Ship, Sting’s weekend benefit gigs for Sage Gateshead’s 10th birthday appeal, will live long in the memory.
We didn’t get to see the full-blown stage musical version of The Last Ship – it closed on Broadway in January – but a story “about exile and a sense of belonging” came to life resoundingly through the music and Sting’s brief narrative interludes.
“I’m delighted to be back here – to be back home, particularly in this lovely venue we’re all so proud of, us Geordies,” said Sting, introducing Saturday afternoon’s performance, the second of three.
But Sting, who hasn’t always boasted of his Geordie roots, was not only performing for a home crowd. To scattered whoops, he welcomed people “from Canada, the United States, Europe and Australia”.
Sting has fans in as many countries as have been visited by the big ships made at Swan Hunter – many of them for Cunard, a sponsor of the gigs, and including the one launched at the end of Sting’s Wallsend street by the Queen Mother.
He recalled the day, back in 1961, when, as a wide-eyed nine-year-old, he imagined he caught the royal visitor’s eye and decided he’d like to ride in a big posh car. Many may have thought it. Sting, we can assume, has achieved it.
The Last Ship, title track of show and album, opened proceedings, a rousing, rumbling song of soaring melody and rhythm.
In tone, the show ebbed and flowed, from And Yet and August Winds, songs as beautiful and wistful as any Sting has written, to the foot-stomping and theatrical What Have We Got?
This raucous anthem was made for the throaty delivery of Jimmy Nail who played shipyard foreman Jackie White on stage and was in terrific form here.
If Jimmy was lured out of retirement to do The Last Ship, as Sting claimed, then it was a good move. He got a huge cheer in the Sage’s Hall One and the man who gave us Crocodile Shoes should maybe think about reviving his musical career.
It was wonderful to see so much North East talent on display, including Jimmy’s big sister, the actress Val McLane, who reminded us that she, too, has a fabulous voice.
The Tickells, Kathryn and Peter, provided virtuoso support on strings while Julian Sutton did likewise on melodeon.
The Unthank sisters, Rachel and Becky, not only sang but got their clogs on for a dance, adding to the folk-infused fervour of the afternoon.
Singing solo alongside Sting and Jimmy were Charlie Richmond, a Newcastle College graduate who sang in the workshop performance of The Last Ship at Live Theatre in 2012, and versatile Jo Lawry, an Aussie introduced by Sting as an “adopted Geordie”.
Some accomplished American musicians made up a tight band.
Musical director Rob Mathes, who has also worked with Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon and Aretha Franklin, was clearly a lynchpin, busy on keyboards throughout.
But the biggest cheer of the afternoon went to the Wilson Family, from Teesside, who – as five large and rather shambling middle-aged brothers – are anyone’s antidote to chart pop.
“I thought I was getting The Beach Boys,” quipped Sting. “I was happy with what I got.”
Unaccompanied and in perfect harmony, and without microphones, they sang a song called Big Steamers (words by Rudyard Kipling) and brought the house down.
A word, finally, for the wonderful slow motion visuals projected onto a screen above the band.
With the colours and textures of a Turner painting, we saw a ghost-like sequence of still and moving images of the Tyne in times gone by.
“I expect that was quite expensive,” said one impressed audience member afterwards. She should know. It was Maddy Prior, lead singer of Steeleye Span.
It was a ‘no expense spared’ kind of occasion and one to savour. Money raised will, through the birthday appeal, help to fund Sage activities into the future.