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The Lake Poets + Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening

The Fire Station, Sunderland

Sunderland’s new music venue, The Fire Station, welcomed its first audience and its first performers in December – The Lake Poets (aka local hero Marty Longstaff) and Kathryn Tickell and The Darkening. It was an emotional night full of heartfelt words and songs, beginning with TLP’s ‘Windowsill’, which he wrote when he was a teenager too shy to get up and perform until “a couple of people took a chance on us” and he “never looked back”.

The Fire Station itself is an elegant building that invites punters in, its long cherry wood bar twinkling behind a glass foyer through which warm internal brickwork can clearly be seen. One couple were overheard likening it to Northern Stage. But when you step into the auditorium itself you might be more inclined to think that here’s the lovechild of the two main halls at Sage Gateshead. The layout, with its upstairs gallery, is reminiscent of Sage One, where the orchestras and big bands perform; but the sense of intimacy and the red seats are more akin to Sage Two, home of jazz and acoustic sessions. This isn’t wholly surprising. Jason Flanagan, who led the team when Sage Gateshead was built, was also the architect of this new place, built on a former bomb site turned carpark. Warmth and intimacy were main aims, he said. Another was flexibility. With a small stage, as on opening night, the maximum seated capacity is 550. But the stage can be extended and the seats easily retracted, allowing for standing capacity of 800. Another link with Sage Gateshead is Tamsin Austin who ran its non-classical programming for years and joined the Fire Station auditorium as venue director in February. “Sunderland has a wonderful music scene with a lively grassroots network and a mid-scale venue like this was much needed for the city,” she said in her welcoming speech. Then it was over to the musicians, two gilt-edged north-east acts with their hearts in the right place and a wealth of material to stir all emotions. There were the quiet, moving songs – TLP’s ‘North View’, in memory of his “wonderful” grandmother who died of Alzheimer’s – and there were the rousing ones, such as Tickell’s ‘O.U.T spells OUT’, inspired by playground games. When the pair came together to remember their pitman forbears, Kathryn’s instrumental ‘Westoe’ bleeding into Marty’s song ‘Vane Tempest’, the atmosphere in the hall positively crackled. As the audience spilled out, exhilarated and perhaps a little teary, it’s unlikely they vowed never to return. This venue lives up to all promises, hopes and expectations. You can’t imagine any musician not wanting to play there and it should add greatly to many people’s enjoyment for decades to come.

David Whetstone

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