Live Reviews - Reviews

Sting and Blondie at Belsonic 2024

I decided last year that if any more vintage artists played Belsonic I was going. It’s a short walk from my house and when I hear Nile Rodgers or Lionel Richie, and the cheers of their excited fans, I think you never know the hour nor the minute, and determine to grab the bull by the horns in future and make sure I’m not left with a lifetime of regret at missing my chance to see someone big while I still can. So when Belsonic announced a double bill of late 70s/early 80s royalty in Blondie and Sting I thought I’d strike while the iron was still hot.

My husband wasn’t convinced. However, I was, so he was soon in looking for tickets. He wondered if maybe this was a good time to break from tradition and opt to stand in the Golden Circle.

‘Is that not a bit wanky?’ I asked, concerned about my reputation.

‘We’re going to see Sting, Shauna, that ship has already sailed.’

And so it began. The mantra of ‘Well, I’m only going to see Blondie.’ echoed around Northern Ireland as a whole generation made sure no one thought for a minute they were paying to see Sting.

All the vitriol left me pondering what it was about Sting that garnered such strong reactions from music fans. He hasn’t banged on about tantric sex for years now, and it’s almost a decade since he last gathered up a load of old white men to Rock for the Rainforest; if anything, Sting has just been quietly going about his business and cameoing in the brilliant Only Murders in the Building. And despite being an Englishman in Belfast, he does have connections here as Northern Irish actress Frances Tomelty is the mother to two of his children. He even lived here for a while, in Whitehead no less; not for Sting the glamour of South Belfast or Cultra.  A few years later he ran off with Trudie Styler of course so his Northern Ireland connections perhaps soured after that. We’re an unforgiving bunch.

Anyway, off I went to join the middle-aged masses who were only going to see Blondie, honestly, making their way to Ormeau Park. Due to the demographic – there are fewer naked midriffs and less peeing on the street than at some of the other Belsonic gigs but the trade-off is that they’re a slow-moving lot – I arrive a few minutes later than planned and can already hear One Way or Another in the distance as I’m getting my bag searched. Debbie Harry’s voice is distinctively hers even from the gate, so that bodes well.

Unlike Sting, Debbie Harry has done everything right, and is arguably the coolest woman in music history. A few people had even said ‘Surely, it should be Blondie supporting Sting?’ when I told them I was going. Really? Sting sold over 75 million albums with The Police alone which is twice what Blondie did. Should she just be headlining because she’s really cool? She is really cool though.

When we get nearer the front we see her on the big screen and she’s fabulous – wearing a black trouser suit with her platinum grey barnet, chains hanging from her clothes and sunglasses protecting her eyes from the pleasantly hot evening sun. She’s certainly enthusiastic and we get the hits we want with Atomic, Rapture, and Heart Of Glass as the set goes on. Her moves have been tamed a bit since her younger days – whose haven’t – but there is still some trademark Debbie Harry dancing as she stands at the mic, which most of us watch in awe. She’s seventy-nine next month which is approaching eighty. And obviously ‘old’ is a subjective term but eighty is where I think we can all agree you have permission to rest up a bit.

Her voice definitely isn’t what it used to be however, although I am impressed by some of the high notes she does manage. At times she lacks coherency, and we miss words and lines, and I’m standing to the left so the sound probably isn’t as good as it could be there. I don’t think anyone here to see Blondie, which is everyone, honestly, has come expecting the voice of her youth though, and the whole thing is great fun.

Belfast loves ‘The Tide is High’ and we’re all singing supportively on her behalf as we belt out ‘I’m not the kinda girl who gives up just like that’. And she really isn’t. ‘Maria’, a later Blondie song, although not as recent, I find out, as it was in my head, goes down well too, and she sings well here. Again, she seems to sum herself up with ‘she moves like she don’t care, smooth as silk, cool as air’. And she really doesn’t. Care that is. She knows she’s fabulous and we all agree but I’m not sure it would matter to her if we didn’t. She’s brought the punk credentials too; Clem Burke, the original Blondie drummer is still there, wearing his CBGBs tee-shirt, and she even has a real-life Sex Pistol up there in Glen Matlock on bass guitar. Despite the limitations of her ageing voice Blondie and Debbie Harry have still got it. She’s like the anti-Sting.

Yet, the minute Sting appears on stage it’s clear that he is an excellent live performer. I’ve never seen him live before obviously because I’m just here to see Blondie, honestly, but his voice is great. He opens with ‘Message in a Bottle’, reminding us he can write great songs from the get-go, and the Belfast audience are immersed from the start.

It’s Sting’s solo output that people have the issue with though, isn’t it? A friend of mine, declining to attend, said he’d go to see Sting if he could create the setlist himself with only some personally selected songs by The Police, and I get it. Sting is a charismatic performer but if you’d never heard of him or The Police you’d be able to divide his performance this evening into good songs and mediocre songs, and in general the good songs are those by The Police. Nevertheless, he moves swiftly into ‘If I Ever Lose my Faith in You,’ a song I’d completely forgotten existed until my husband said it was the one Sting song he liked. This is a really big deal as he’s categorically not a Sting fan and is only here to see Blondie, honestly. He’s right though, it’s a great song and another friend who’s a fan of the song, but can’t stand Sting and is only here to see Blondie, honestly, says he didn’t realise it was even a Sting song. Even when people like a Sting song it’s based on the understanding it’s not by Sting.

We don’t have to wait long for the excellent ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’ and the crowd predictably love seeing the man himself singing ‘Fields of Gold’ when he inevitably sings it; before the invention of the smartphone there would definitely have been a lot of lighters in the air for this one. There’s a lull of interest in the middle however, for those who are here for great The Police songs (no one is obviously, as they’re all here for Blondie, honestly) but it’s sunny and the bar is kept busy for a while. Just when I’m thinking how great he looks and how strong his voice is, he decides it’s time for some banter to introduce the aforementioned ‘Fields of Gold’. It’s sweet and good-natured but when he’s telling us about his ‘cottage’ in the English countryside, he corrects himself to ‘well it’s more of a castle really’.  And there it is. That’s the Sting we’ve come to expect. If Sting were made of chocolate he’d eat himself. Except he wouldn’t, because of his macrobiotic diet. He’d definitely eat himself if he were made of buckwheat though.

Sting does himself no favours and the great songs are sometimes overshadowed by a general feeling that you couldn’t like him if you’d reared him. Admittedly most of them were written a long time ago and tonight they’re diluted by some just plain boring songs, but with just a drummer and a guitarist, he gives those great songs a good outing. So, if you’re reading this Sting, I like you. I thought you performed better than Debbie Harry; that’s not her fault, but anyone who says differently really wasn’t listening. You still sound like Sting, you still look like Sting, and you still have the same Sting self-satisfaction. It’s this predictability that I like. You do exactly what it says on the Sting tin. And if I could afford to I’d probably live in a castle too. I just wouldn’t keep going on about it.

We’re rewarded for our earlier patience with ‘So Lonely,’ ‘Every Breath You Take,’ and ‘Roxanne’ which delight the crowd, who know all the words despite only being there to see Blondie, honestly. I’d have liked to hear ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’ but even Sting knows that sometimes it’s wiser to keep his mouth shut when it really counts.

He concludes, strangely I think, with ‘Fragile,’ a quiet solo song that seems an odd choice to end on after the enthusiastic singalong of The Police numbers, so I slip away before he’s finished, to miss the squeeze at the gates and leave the crowd to hear him out. The crowd who’d just come to see Blondie of course, honestly. Shauna McLaughlin