Wheeled in on white stairs. White stole, white suit. White trilby cocked just-so, over brassy blonde locks in a Forties wave. Steering-wheel mic stand.
The vintage Vegas pizzazz of the opening "Ain't No Other Man" routine, and the Back to Basics tour in general, heralds Christina Aguilera's new musical direction. The album of that name excavates retro jazz, blues and soul styles, and "Back in the Day" rams the point home, accompanied by a big-screen parade of historical black icons, from the polite (Nat "King" Cole) to the impolite (James Brown) and all points in between.
Politeness, or the lack thereof, is a germane issue with Aguilera. After the Disney Club squeakiness of her bubblegum debut, she strapped on the leather chaps and got "Dirrty". Third time around, she's ditched the X-rated "Xtina" persona for someone called Baby Jane, and aimed squarely for "classy". For "Understand", helpfully, she even writes her own headlines: spinning Evening Chronicle covers with screamers tell us that she's gone from "DIRRTY TO DEMURE", from "NASTY TO CHASTITY", etc.
Is anyone buying it? Well, kind of. Back to Basics entered the album charts at No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. But Wembley hasn't quite sold out, and the atmosphere is oddly deadened. "None of this success would have been possible without you," she recites flatly. There isn't much applause. At 90 quid a ticket, I'm not surprised. Who does she think she is? Madonna?
Still, Aguilera works the smoke-and-mirror trickery of showbusiness harder than anyone. Sexy she may be - Aguilera exudes sexuality - but she wasn't born beautiful. Catch her in a candid moment, on a TV documentary, and you can see the warts (and all) on her chin. At one or two moments tonight, she's worse than plain. Her brow crumples, her half-shut eyes roll back into their sockets, her bottom lip falls slack, and she's actively ugly. But the moment passes, she smiles through those expensive pearly tombstones, and goes stomping off on those tiny, ruby-slippered feet, swinging those big hips.
No question, she scrubs up well. But if she's the "new" anybody, it isn't Madonna, but Tina Turner: a ballsy hoofer who's survived a tough early life. Again, she makes sure we don't forget it with "Oh Mother", a song about the domestic violence the witnessed as a child (dramatised cheesily on screen), and, of course, "Fighter".
The delivery is hit-and-miss. The calypso reggae version of "What a Girl Wants" causes baffled expressions. That said, the new material, notably the saucy sailor rendition of the Glenn Millerish "Welcome" ("He's my one-stop shop, makes my cherry pop") works sporadically.
It must be said that Aguilera's a little slow in joining the burlesque revival, although the pink feather fan-dance for "Lady Marmalade", the pole-dancing on a carousel horse for "Dirrty" and the fire jugglers, stilt walkers and trapeze artists for "Welcome to the Circus" go some way towards justifying the ticket price.
This being an Aguilera concert, one must endure a sizeable degree of wailing, as though someone's emptied a bucket of ice cubes down her knickers. It can, however, backfire and cause fits of giggles, particularly during the big showstopping encore of "Beautiful" (impossible to take seriously after Sebastian's rendition in Little Britain).
Oddly, the finest moment comes when Christina isn't even on stage. During a break, we're shown a faux-vintage film for "I Got Trouble" in which Christina plays a black-and-white siren of the Silent Era, doing the splits in a tin bathtub, and riding rodeo on a dead polar bear. Just for a second, she really is beautiful.
Last in, first out. It's the ruthless rule of the employment world, and it appears to apply to The Strokes. Albert Hammond Jr was the final member to join the New York band, and he's the first to step out solo (although suggestions that he has quit altogether are being met with strenuous denials).
Hammond Jr (left) was not the musical mastermind of the group. Indeed, the man cruelly nicknamed Ringo Stroke has tended to strum rhythm, his white Strat hoisted armpit high and his right wrist a blur, while Nick Valensi nabs the solos. Albert was the only member with no writing credits on First Impressions of Earth, The Strokes' third album. (He offered songs, but they were rejected.) Their loss. His debut solo album, Yours to Keep, is a quietly lovely, mellow thing, informed by late Sixties Beach Boys, with sprinklings of Television and the Plastic Ono Band.
Should we read anything into the fact that "In Transit", tonight's opening song, and the most obviously Strokesy, begins with the words "Free from it all"? Or other lyrics like "Sometimes it all seems to drag me down"? Perhaps not. Hammond Jr isn't a complete lyrical dunce, but he's a bit prone to hippy-dippy couplets such as "There are birds all around me/There were flowers pressed to my face" or "Warm sun tells me that it's more fun to stay/On holiday, on holiday".
You can't necessarily expect much in the way of insight from someone whose whole life has been lived in the comfort zone (his dad wrote "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" for Starship and "Air That I Breathe" for The Hollies, and could afford to send Albert Jr to a Swiss finishing school). On stage, he looks comfortable, if nervous. The overall impression is of a man indulging himself with, if not a vanity project, then a satisfying hobby.Reuse content