It's back to basics as Kylie goes on no-frills tour

As the superstar plays to small audiences and reconnects with her fans, Elisa Bray looks at some of the best intimate gigs

The last time fans saw Kylie in Britain, she was surrounded by a cohort of dancers and trapeze artists and a lavish Graeco-Roman stage production involving 200 costumes designed by Dolce and Gabbana and 30 water jets. Appearing as Aphrodite, on her biggest and most expensive world tour to date (reported to have cost £15m), she performed to 20,000 fans at the O2 Arena. This time round, when she brought her Anti Tour to the UK this week, there were no extravagant set designs, no elaborate costumes, and certainly no dancers.

Instead, Kylie performed a stripped-back, no-frills show, dressed down in denim cut-offs, T-shirt and studded belt, to a fraction of her usual audience sizes. Stadiums? Arenas, even? Forget it. On the first night of her tour, Kylie played to 2,300 fans at the student venue Manchester Academy, while on the third night she played to double that number at Hammersmith Apollo. The initial shows had sold out in 10 minutes flat.

Kylie shows are rare – the Aphrodite tour came three years after her last UK appearance – but ones as stripped-down and intimate as these are a one-off. "It's the flipside to a huge Kylie production, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience" said the press release that announced the shows marking her 25 years in entertainment. And for her devoted fans, it truly was. It was a hit with the critics, too. "This wilful escape from the straitjacket of her usual, rigidly-choreographed, big-budget productions was clearly as much fun for her as it was for the audience" said The Times.

It had begun in her home country, in Melbourne, where she played two nights at the Palace Theatre. She abandoned the hits, replacing them with songs audience members never got to hear: B-sides, demos and rarities such as "Do It Again", never before played live, offering a treat to her most devoted fans.

In an age when concerts have ever more extravagant stage designs (U2 broke records with their 360 Degrees tour in 2009, a stadium-rock spectacular featuring a massive four-legged supporting rig, nicknamed "the claw", contributing to the tour's £75m cost), it's refreshing to see major acts going the other way, going back to basics and reverting to their roots. This week's shows had Kylie herself reminiscing about gigs she'd played at similar venues in her early days as a pop star. While musicians pride themselves on making even an arena gig feel intimate and fan-friendly, there's nothing that beats the real thing. Even the biggest acts miss the connection they once had with their fans in concert.

Before their O2 Arena show in 2010, Arcade Fire said they feared playing larger venues because they didn't want to lose connection with their fans. Meanwhile, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters is so attentive of his fans that at gigs he has had barriers removed to allow them to storm the stage.

Everyone wants to return to their roots now and then. Perhaps that's why, in October, Rihanna took the tube to her show at the O2 Arena, stunning commuters when she hopped off at North Greenwich station clasping an Oyster card (albeit surrounded by an entourage of security guards).

Bruce Springsteen

South by Southwest Festival, 2012

This summer the Boss will be playing a series of huge outdoor gigs, at Sunderland's Stadium of Light, Manchester's Etihad Stadium, and headlining the Isle Of Wight and Hard Rock Calling festivals. But at last month's SXSW in Austin, Texas, fans enjoyed a sneak preview in a far more intimate setting. 2,500 fans, many of whom had won tickets, attended the one-off gig at ACL Live at Moody Theatre, following the launch of Springsteen's new critically acclaimed album Wrecking Ball. Locals said that it was the smallest venue Springsteen, right, had played there since 1974. His typically long (two hours and 50 minutes) set blended new and old songs, and featured an array of special guests from reggae legend Jimmy Cliff to Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tommy Morello, and members of Arcade Fire.

Coldplay

Dingwalls, 2011

In December the stadium band played a free gig to 500 fans at the tiny Camden venue, above, which was hired for a Coldplay show back in 1998 by the band's first manager Phil Harvey, while he was still a student. The band hadn't been back since. In their career-spanning set which included the hits "Yellow" and "The Scientist", Chris Martin told the crowd: "We're used to lasers and posh stuff, and now we've got nothing but our instruments and our handsome bass player." It was held as part of the Radio 2 In Concert series.

Blur

Colchester East Anglian Railway Museum/ Goldsmiths Students' Union, 2009

Blur's emotional return to the stage in 2009 began with two intimate gigs. Fans had jumped to buy tickets for the first announced show at Hyde Park in July, thinking that would be their first comeback show, not anticipating that they would headline Glastonbury, and perform two warm-up gigs before that. The big surprise was the tiny size of those warm-up gigs. The first was at the site of their first ever gig, Colchester East Anglian Railway Museum, for 150 friends, and was the first time the band had played as a foursome since Graham Coxon walked out during their 2002 Think Tank sessions. Then they returned to their former art school Goldsmiths, where Coxon and Alex James were studying when the band formed in 1988, to perform to 400 competition winners, below left. Their two-and-a-half hour set saved their biggest hits "Song 2", "Popscene" and "Parklife" for last.

Radiohead

93 Feet East, 2008

Now they've upgraded to arenas, so those who saw their favourite rock band, above, at 93 Feet East will cherish the memory even more. Radiohead's planned gig at Rough Trade East in 2008 had so many fans queuing outside the independent record shop that they were forced to move to the larger venue 93 Feet East, just up the road. Tickets were promised to 200 fans but 1,500 had turned up. Fans heard their newest album In Rainbows in full, followed by a six-song encore including the classics "My Iron Lung" and "The Bends".

Paul McCartney

ICA, 2007

About as intimate as a gig can get, Paul McCartney performed for 300 competition winners at the tiny ICA. Tens of thousands had applied for tickets. "It's like a party. You can have conversations," McCartney, above, told the crowd before swapping jokes with fans during a 90-minute set including a dozen Beatles songs. In 2010, to show his support for London's 100 Club he played a lunchtime set there, including "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be", to 300 fans.

U2

Astoria, 2001

U2's most intimate show in more than 10 years, above right, had tickets selling for £800 outside the 2,000-capacity venue. The tickets had been distributed free to fans and competition winners, and John Hurt was in the audience. They played hits from across their career, while showcasing songs such as "Stuck In a Moment" and "Beautiful Day” from their new album All That You Can't Leave Behind.

Madonna

Brixton Academy, 2000

Madonna's 2,800-strong ecstatic audience didn't mind that the star performed a short five-song set, above. It was billed as a "club" gig, with tickets going to competition winners, fans and friends. The show promoting her new album Music was watched on the internet by nine million viewers around the world, breaking world records.

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