"Sixty feels comfortable," Sting told the sold-out crowd at New York's Beacon Theatre on October 1st. "I've always felt sort of old." But celebrating the milestone birthday onstage, Sting was positively boyish, ecstatically jamming with a stacked all-star roster of friends and fans including Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga.
He has a lot to celebrate this fall: Sting just released 25 Years, a box set focusing on his quarter-century as a solo artist, and this month he kicks off the 32-date Back to Bass Tour, playing in theaters with a stripped-down band. "I thought it was a good time to reflect," says Sting. "For me, getting older enriches life. You realize there are a limited number of summers left – or tours, songs, relationships – so you really have to value them."
The birthday blowout, which raised $3.7 million for the Robin Hood Foundation to fight poverty, had so many big names it took a year to wrangle them all. "Sting and [wife] Trudie [Styler] presented it as a big, open lovefest," says Rufus Wainwright, whose voice soared on the Police's "Wrapped Around Your Finger." Backstage, Springsteen, Joel and Herbie Hancock caught up near an elevator, Gaga hung out with Wonder, and Mary J. Blige snapped a fan photo with Joel. "It was electric," says Blige. Early in the night, Will.i.am sang "Walking on the Moon" – working in lines from "I Gotta Feeling" – and Hancock tore into a wickedly funky "Sister Moon." "Sting has the soul of a jazzman," says Hancock. "He pushes the envelope with the kinds of melodies he writes."
Joel beamed during faithful takes on "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" and "Don't Stand So Close to Me." Gaga, meanwhile, completely reimagined "King of Pain," stripping it almost entirely of the original melody. "It was like 'Bad Romance' meets the blues," says Rob Mathes, the show's musical director. "She was so committed. Sting loved it."
After Wonder delivered a mournful "Fragile," the night hit its peak when Springsteen took the stage. He nailed Sting's "I Hung My Head," a haunting ballad about a man sentenced to death after an accidental shooting, busting out an awesomely unhinged guitar solo. He then strapped on a 12-string acoustic for a stark "Fields of Gold," the house dead silent as he sang a verse in gravelly a cappella. "It sounded like he wrote it," says Wainwright.
But Springsteen wasn't completely somber. "I've known Sting for about 25 years," he said. "I've read, 'Sting can make love for 29 hours.' I wonder why he never mentioned that to me. After four hours now, you're supposed to seek medical attention. . . . Anyway, stay hard, brother, stay hard."
The box set, which includes crystalline new mixes (particularly of tracks from his 1985 debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles), was a revelation even to Sting. "It's a bit like archaeology – we found little things that got buried in the mix," he says. And he's written almost 30 songs for The Last Ship, a musical he's developing about the decline of the shipbuilding industry in his hometown of New-castle, England. "I'm not sure what I'll do after this next tour," he says. "I'm just full of wonder and a sense of joy and the same childlike love of music I've always had. There's so much to learn and so little time."
This story is from the October 27, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.