The Sage music centre, with its futuristically undulating steel roof, resembles an enormous bubble blown by a children's entertainer. It's an appropriate setting for the return of a man who has, throughout his entire career, been viewed - not without some justification - as a space cadet whose state of mind is floating several kilometres above the reality inhabited by the rest of us.
Inside the theatre itself is surprisingly modest and old-fashioned: a medium-sized auditorium with two shallow balconies. Modesty is a quality not commonly associated with Ashcroft, and a messianic aura of portentousness continues to surround everything he does (the journey back to London the following day is punctuated by sightings of giant billboards for his new album Keys To The World, plonked incongruously in farmers' fields). Indeed, in a recent NME, he can be found comparing himself, with little apparent irony, to both Jesus Christ and Nostradamus.
It's a surprise, then, when he walks out on to the Sage stage, with the Fonzerelli swagger of a school kid who thinks he's the cool ruler, to find that he's chatty, non-aloof, and - this part really is amazing - given to self-deprecating humour (notably when his band mess up the intro to "Words Just Get In The Way", and he chuckles it away rather than throwing a hissy fit).
Standing in front of a mirror ball and a few strings of fairy lights, with feathery hair, a leather-look jacket, faded jeans and white trainers, he looks like Paul Calf at the local disco. It doesn't help, of course, that it's impossible to take his comeback single, "Break The Night With Colour" seriously once you've realised that the "ooh-ooh-ooh" which precedes the chorus is a direct lift from Christina Aguilera's "Genie In A Bottle". In addition to selections from his three solo albums, Ashcroft peppers his set with Verve hits such as "History" and "Lucky Man". He has to. If he didn't, he wouldn't be playing the Sage. He'd be playing the pub.
"The Drugs Don't Work", written about the death of his father when Ashcroft was 11, is one of those immortal songs which unfailingly gets you, whether you're one of tonight's tattooed Geordie lads in their brown/ sky-blue rugger shirts, or... well, someone like me. But it's another Verve classic, inevitably, which is saved for the finale. "Bittersweet Symphony" will, from now on, forever be remembered for Chris Martin's ridiculously hyperbolic introduction of it at the Live 8 concert: "the greatest singer in the world singing the greatest song in the world". Tonight's rendition, complete with mime-artist literalism (falling "down on my knees" at the appropriate moment) and a snatch of Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", is preceded by a little barbed humour.
Due to its use of a sample (Andrew Loog Oldham's orchestral rendition of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time"), every penny of royalties from "Bittersweet Symphony" goes directly to Jagger and Richards. Ashcroft claims he isn't bitter, dedicating the song to Keith, and and insisting "I don't mind that they get the money".
He cannot, however, resist one little dig: "This song was a bigger hit than '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction'..."