Robbie Williams, Croke Park, Dublin

A maudlin night of self-absorption that does not come cheap
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The Independent Culture

The great mass of humanity, 78,000 of them, cheer before Robbie launches into a sentimental rendition of "Back for Good", the best song Take That did.

One thing you can say for Robbie is he doesn't need to fall back on material from his former band. His solo material stands up on its own. Like Cliff, Cilla and Elton, Robbie now looms large enough in the nation's consciousness to drop the surname. He is one of ours, and tonight he straps and gurns his way through the first gig of an epic tour.

The stage is suitably expensive and there is a barrage of coloured lights. It's good to know hefty ticket prices were put to good use.

Since his pinnacle in 2002, when he duetted with the freshly single dish of the day Nicole Kidman on "Something Stupid" (tonight he duets with his best pal, Jonathan Wilkes), things haven't quite worked out as planned for Robbie.

The once-mooted film career never materialised, and the Americans didn't take to his pop-rock shtick. To paraphrase Ultravox, it meant nothing to them. They prefer the drab James Blunt. And after his little stint with Wilkes, it's barely surprising.

The two pals do an Eric and Ernie stage routine to "Me and My Shadow", which is not entirely coherent, and then ask the crowd to do a karaoke version of "Strong".

The crowd gamely oblige. However, at least this is distracting, as the rest of the night seems to be strewn with maudlin soft rock and confessional anthems. It seems Robbie's ego was first stranded (after the Take That fall-out), then it landed (at Glastonbury in 1998). Now it's painfully candid (on most of the songs on his new album Intensive Care).

After kicking off with a rousing "Radio" and the Queen-like stadium-pleasing "Rock DJ", he follows with a rather bleak rock set, including the resentful "Tripping" with the vitriolic lyrics, "First they ignore you, then they laugh and hate you, then they fight you, then you win." And his ode to self-loathing, "The Trouble with Me"

He's receiving a lot of love tonight. Worship, even. And "Millennium", the James Bond kitschy number, lightens the mood considerably.

He even manages to pull a blue-steel look from the film Zoolander. After "Millennium", he trudges through more morose power ballads, including the noisome "Make Me Pure", which contains the lyrics "I don't have to try, I just dial it in." But he can't dial it in tonight, not on these ticket prices.

The encore is the most thrilling section of the night. He ends on the enjoyable stomp "Let Me Entertain You" and then, of course, "Angels", the song that saved him from penury and appearances on Celebrity Big Brother. It is the ultimate raised-lighter moment and almost washes away the self-absorption of his material before.

There were even moments, weak moments, when you almost missed Gary Barlow and the boys being there with him. Maybe, sometime soon, there'll be a day when Robbie will need Take That more than they need him.s

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