"A sax has arrived on the stage, it can only mean one song... yes, 'Careless Whisper'," quips the sprightly, diminutive singer before "A Million Love Songs", from 1992's Take That and Party.
Like every track tonight it sparks hysteria, roared back lyrics and delirious
arm-waving from the predominantly female audience. At a rough estimate it's 40
women to every one man among the 5,200 Gary Barlow fanatics present. It's a
fevered and occasionally unsettling occasion that nearly didn't happen due to a
water shortage at the Albert Hall.
"I've still got it, you know," the 41-year-old boasts after some nifty Take That dance moves on "Pray". "We want some more of it," a lady hollers back. At one point he walks through the crowd, where, Tom Cruise-like, he shakes palms and receives kisses. It triggers yet more mania. The harassed security staff have been already fighting a losing battle trying to politely usher away clusters of women, who have scurried to the front to take camera-phone images of The X-Factor judge.
This mob, unequivocally, love Gary Barlow. However, when he mentions a special guest and "one of his best friends" the screams are unhinged in their intensity. "He's a young man," Barlow teases. There are groans, it can't be Robbie. "Who I have known for many years," he adds. Cue delirium, it's Robbie Williams. It's like panto, or The X-Factor, or Las Vegas. Williams, looking less trim than his former nemesis, joins in gamely in for "Eight Letters" and "Candy". It caps a successful solo night (it's Barlow's first individual tour in 13 years) for the hard-working songwriter.
There are some misfires, but the faithful don't seem to care. The Swing Section, in which he clumsily tackles "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Moondance" is ill-judged. Frank Sinatra and Van Morrison exude menace on these lascivious tracks whereas Barlow is about as menacing as a Furby. Plus, the painfully earnest "Sing", Barlow's Diamond Jubilee tribute song, sets the teeth on edge and a cover of "his hero" Jeff Wayne's "Forever Autumn" is frankly surreal.
Where Barlow excels is at deceptively simple, mostly Take That, pop songs. At his best he's comparable to a young George Michael or Abba's Benny and Bjorn, and in "Patience", "Rule the World" and, most of all, "Back for Good" he has three terrific pop songs.
"Today this could be, the greatest day of our lives," sings Barlow. For this ecstatic audience it might well could be... And it would take a fearful curmudgeon to knock this engaging pop star's chance to shine.