Top of the hypes

<i>Robbie Williams</i> | NEC, Birmingham
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The Independent Culture

He writes pink pound-plucking anthems for Kylie. He does charity work for Unicef. Have any loaded questions? Ask them safe in the knowledge that the boy Williams will zap you right back with just the cheeky-chappie soundbite you wanted. Robbie's black belt is in PR, not music, and he's got the measure of each and every demographic. It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, spotted or striped.

He writes pink pound-plucking anthems for Kylie. He does charity work for Unicef. Have any loaded questions? Ask them safe in the knowledge that the boy Williams will zap you right back with just the cheeky-chappie soundbite you wanted. Robbie's black belt is in PR, not music, and he's got the measure of each and every demographic. It doesn't matter if you're gay, straight, spotted or striped.

His props - 15-piece band, a show whose nightly budget is probably equivalent to that of a whole series of Stars In Their Eyes - don't come cheap; at one point it rained fireworks for a minute. Why, then, did I feel like a mum-and-dad accompanied teenager watching a variety show at the Winter Gardens, Scarborough? And why did Robbie's spotlight-blasted mush remind me of Freddie Starr?

The opening was sheer kitsch, Robbie emerging from a cage wearing Elvis (circa Vegas) threads. Inevitably it was "Let Me Entertain You", and in a Freddie Starr kind of way he did. "I don't mind telling you that I'm shitting myself tonight," he confessed two songs in. He needn't have worried, of course; the audience came on to him like a 50,000-strong hen night.

For me, the problem was the japes during songs. Unable to decide whether he wanted to be Norman Wisdom or George Michael, Robbie was tugging at his crotch one minute and the front rows' heart strings the next. If he has a gift, it's his rapid-fire assimilation of pop culture's latest tropes. This was particularly evident when the lads'R'us script from the current Budweiser ad ("whassup") became a running gag between Robbie and his bandmates.

"Strong", "Angels" and "She's The One" (who is, Robbie? Kylie? Geri? Your mum?) were the set's saving graces, all of them decent pop songs which any half-decent karaoke artist - and hence our host - would find it difficult to make a fist of. His cover version of "My Way", on the other hand, was pure sacrilege, and feeling that I owed it to Sinatra's ghost, I headed for the NEC's car park.

Am I being a tad harsh? When pop can be as gobsmackingly joyous as the Jackson Five, or as politically charged as the Specials, I think not. Robbie Williams is a whole different animal; one who - with a hell of a lot of help - has spent much of his solo career trying to rejig the equation: boy-band roots equals looks over talents. Glitzy as it was, tonight's end-of-pier extravaganza only served to show that the maths still holds.

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