Most men get a gold watch for their 65th birthday - but then Dave Stewart is no ordinary man.
Arguably Sunderland’s most-successful musical export, Dave has racked up an impressive 100 million album sales in a shimmering career that’s spanned four decades.
That’s quite the back catalogue for him to draw from for this gig, which was, rather surprisingly for a Mackem maestro, the first time he’s played the Empire stage.
Achieving a goal a young Dave growing up in Barnes could only dream of, was the singer songwriter’s birthday gift to himself - and to his fans who packed out the stalls and dress circle of the venue.
It was fitting in this celebration of his roots, that the evening began with support slots from a trio of emerging Wearside acts hand-picked by the birthday boy.
Picnic, made up of Sunderland College and university students, got the party started with their perky brand of pop.
Next up, Lilliput put on a big show with their smooth blend of indie and psychedelia.
Capping off the support, six-piece Social Room ramped up the energy led by frontman Matty Smith and his Gallagher-esque swagger.
It wasn’t the last we’d see of Matty who later stepped into Mick Jagger’s shoes to perform Old Habits Die Hard, a track Dave made with the Rolling Stones frontman.
In America, Dave is known as The Ringmaster for his ability to bring together musicians on stage for a glorious mash up of music, and this was to be no different with a kaleidoscope of performers making guest appearances. We were certainly given more talent for our buck than the average gig.
The main man himself made an entrance resplendent in a black suit embellished with sparkles and his trademark trilby.
Joining him on stage were world class musicians from Nashville who brought to life tracks from Dave’s lengthy career, from his Eurythmics days, such as There Must Be An Angel (performed with beautiful sweetness by Diane Birch), to No 1 smash Stay by Shakespears Sister to tracks from his latest release, Nashville Sessions: The Duets.
Birthday surprises came thick and fast with guest appearances. First up was The Lake Poets, fresh off the plane from America, who introduced Dave with his Sunderland-inspired track City by the Sea and reappeared later for a performance of Eurythmics’ When The Day Goes Down, which he performed with Easington Colliery Band in a haunting moment of melancholy.
Ever the showman, Dave popped up in the dress circle to perform This Little Town, a musical ode to his beloved home city, where his exceptional guitar playing was complemented with the might of the Easington Colliery Band on stage.
This was a gig which covered a full gamut of emotions, from Dave reminiscing about growing up in Ettrick Grove and his careers teacher telling him he should stop daydreaming and get a job at Pyrex, to moving to London where he lived in a squat with Annie Lennox, to pathos over Sunderland’s lost industry and true rock ‘n’ roll moments.
The latter came from a duet with Razorlight frontman and guitarist Johnny Borrell which proved to be a masterclass in guitar playing as they smashed the roof off the Empire with another of Dave’s masterpieces, Don’t Come Around Here No More, made famous by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Meanwhile, musical theatre star Ryan Molloy, fresh from the Great North Run, did an impressively energetic rendition of Thorn in My Side - in Annie’s difficult key too. With the audience in the palm of his hand, he had us all attempting the high notes too.
I didn’t think it could get much better, until the whole musical circus joined The Ringmaster for rousing finale number Sweet Dreams.
This was a level of musicianship a class above anything I’d seen at the Empire before, and ever likely to again.
What made it all the more special is that, as the jubilant crowd chanted, “Dave Stewart: he’s one of our own.” If only his careers teacher could see him now.