Robbie Williams, Roundhouse, London
Thursday 22 October 2009
Securing Robbie Williams's first concert in three years for the opening night of the Electric Proms season undoubtedly represents a coup for the BBC, and also a feather in the cap of the Roundhouse – particularly since his performance, the opening salvo of the promotional campaign for his Reality Killed the Video Star album, was on such a huge scale.
Producer Trevor Horn had assembled a massive backing orchestra for this showcase gig, with Robbie's own touring band joined by substantial string and horn sections, several keyboard players, a phalanx of guitarists, two drummers, sundry percussionists, a quintet of backing vocalists, and that most indispensable of modern pop instrumentalists, a harpist. Clearly, Horn and Williams are unconvinced by the principle of "less is more". To paraphrase Spinal Tap, you could ask how much more there could be, and get the answer "none more more". If they were gambling by focusing primarily on new material, they were ready to batter the audience into submission, if necessary.
Previously, there has been a distinct tendency for Robbie Williams's shows to become simply an opportunity to bathe in the star's oceanic self-regard, a worry that surfaced briefly as he sauntered down the stage's central staircase like an arrogant princeling, encouraging the crowd's acclaim with tiny hand movements. But as the show progressed, his more chummy, blokeish side prevailed in self-deprecating chat about his greying hair and his rapprochement with Take That, a sly impression of The George Michael Dance, and his perfectly timed delivery of an actually quite decent joke: introducing "Feel", he remarks with sombre sincerity that it was his aunt's favourite song. "I'm sure she's looking down on us now," he says, pausing briefly to gaze heavenwards before adding, "She's not dead – just really condescending!"
Musically, the new material ranges from the terse, twitchy orchestral-techno of "Bodies" to the chamber-pop of "Blasphemy" – the last song Williams wrote with Guy Chambers, he explains. The obvious "I Am the Walrus" influence on the string arrangement of "Morning Sun" is further accentuated by a bout of brazen "goo-goo-g'joob"-ing, immediately followed by quotes from "A Walk on the Wild Side" in a crowd-pleasing singalong of "Come Undone".
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