Rock & Pop: Don't let him complain, you

Robbie Williams Cardiff International Arena McAlmont Jazz Cafe, NW1 Faithless Cambridge Junction
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The Independent Culture
As I've said before, Robbie Williams seems to be coming down with a chronic case of Chris Evans syndrome. Like Evans, he was once the outspoken outsider. He obviously had talent to spare, but he was still the little man, the victim to be cheered on when he kicked the bland, bullying establishment in the crotch. He was the cheeky chappy extraordinaire, the boy-band burn-out who wrestled with his weight, his drug use and our preconceptions, and went on to make two of last year's top 10 best-selling albums in the UK. But once he reached the peaks of fame and fortune, he couldn't let go of the arrogance that got him there. Like Evans again, he has a bag of chips on each shoulder, and goes on at stultifying length about how great and successful and famous he and his mates are - and his enemies aren't. And as his arrogance keeps expanding, his talent is being squashed to make room for it. Williams declared his second LP, I've Been Expecting You (Chrysalis), to be "the most important pop album of [last] year", but its raking of old coals and settling of old scores can only truly touch listeners who are as obsessed with Robbie Williams as Robbie Williams is.

Onstage, I'm relieved to say, the tables are turned: Williams is obsessed with his audience. As his tour touched down in mainland Britain on Thursday, there was a rumble of piano, a bank of blue spotlights worked itself into a frenzy, the six-piece band scorched into the Seventies rock operatics of "Let Me Entertain You" and Williams himself finally appeared ... in a flat cap and a mac. "Good evening, Cardiff," he says once he's dispensed with his rainwear. "I'm Robbie Williams. I entertain." And he's as good as his word. In front of a band that's as hyperactive as he is, Williams is in his element. He can fend off whatever insecurities draw out his obnoxious interview persona. As the musicians pump up the song, Williams is jumping, grinning, urging us to clap along, and dancing in a manner that owes as much to Morecambe and Wise as to the militarily choreographed routines of Take That. He performs as if this were the only song of the evening - and if it had been, we would still have got our money's worth.

The second song, "Man Machine", doesn't quite match it. Not only does it sound like a faint tracing of "Let Me Entertain You", but it's accompanied by an off-putting montage of newspaper headlines on the backdrop, all referring to him, and ending smugly with "Rob Has the Last Laugh". Is this really interesting to anyone apart from Williams? There's certainly a limit to how much I want to hear about the relationship between Robbie and the press - and I'm in the press. I suspect he was entertaining himself more than his fans.

He was soon back on course. Once he'd made whatever point he was making, he put on a magnificently judged pop spectacular. There was just the right number of singalongs and just the right amount of swearing. Williams left no crowd-pleasing trick untried, from wearing a Welsh flag as a cape to singing "Cardiff" instead of "Heaven" on "Heaven From Here". "I love my job," he hooted, after "Ego A Go Go", and the crowd loved him for it.

The actual songs, since you ask, are pastiches of other people's, belying Williams's claims to being musically "important". Tonight, though, he doesn't care about being important, he's too busy getting his fans to wave their arms in the air in time with the choruses. And for that purpose, his high-voltage glam-metal anthems couldn't be better.

The debilitating bitterness resurfaces before the end. Williams encores with a grunge butchering of Take That's "Back For Good" - rebellious when he did it on his first tour, but pathetic now. You can only get away with being this bitchy when you're the underdog. Only the Beloved Entertainer's showbiz instincts save the day. The memory of his crooning, "I guess it's time for me to throw up" while scooting across the stage on a motorised toilet is one that I'll treasure for some time.

Splitting from old colleagues isn't always so energising. David McAlmont had some of Williams's camp theatricality when he was half of McAlmont and Butler, and again when he teamed up with David Arnold in 1997 to out- Bassey Bassey on a histrionic remake of "Diamonds Are Forever" (Robbie, take note: those Bond references are so passe). That's all changed. The dreadlocks have been snipped off, the velvet suit is back in the dressing- up box, the torch songs have been snuffed out. Instead of a big, orchestral sound, McAlmont has opted for, to coin an album title, A Little Communication (Hut).

On Tuesday, he padded onstage in jeans and an olive-green top, barely recognisable behind a dusting of beard and Malcolm X glasses. The drama queen had abdicated. Even the audience had been scaled down.

A Little Communication has not been a huge seller, in part because the songs are understated and personal; they tend to seep past, whispering "Don't mind me." But the record's low profile is also due to the cocktail- jazz arrangements, which are replicated in concert. You can't knock the sweetness and control of McAlmont's voice, and even in civvies he radiates languid star quality. But why he should want to front a polite mid-Eighties synthetic soul combo is beyond me. The set's most spine-tingling moments came when "Love and Madness" gave him the chance to camp things up. McAlmont can do without glitter and sequins, as long as he has some all-round Bond theme-ishness to help him shine.

Faithless are a kind of M People-with-brains. The Buddhist rave ensemble responsible for "God is a DJ", they put on a live show which has been rapturously received by critics, and I can see why. It's partly the way Sister Bliss's synthesiser dynamics are counterpointed by the organic warmth of a funky live band. It's partly the acoustic sea shanty and the two gospel backing singers doing a Supremes-style backstroke dance. But mostly it's Maxi Jazz's elegant, socially aware lyrics. I could make out what he was saying - and at rap shows that's even rarer than a sea shanty.

Robbie Williams: Exeter Westpoint (0990 321321), tonight; Brighton Centre (01273 202881), Mon; Aberdeen Exhibition Centre (01224 632080), Wed; Glasgow SECC (0141 248 9999), Thurs & Fri; and touring.