He's reinvented himself, but Gary Barlow can't escape his fate...

Mr Gary Barlow, backstage in a Sheffield City Hall dressing room, casually attired in a cream polo neck and blue tracksuit bottoms, is shorter than you'd think and friendlier than you'd expect. Unlike 99 per cent of bands who banish journos from the dressing room before they go on stage so they can row, vomit or throw beer down their necks to battle pre-gig nerves, Gary actually sees me as his time-killing entertainment. His warm Cheshire quack, undiluted by time and globe-trotting, is relaxing. "Somebody said to me yesterday `Oh, I'm glad I met you - I just remembered to video Coronation Street!' Cheeky bugger!" he exclaimed.

The best part of two years have galloped away since Take That split up and Gary has a lot of work to do - he must administer some medicine to his career. He is a worried man. "This tour is a year late," he groans, "but it's such a risk to take. I was just so scared of putting all these dates on and nobody coming to see me." Although ticket sales were great Gary the solo artiste has, until these gigs, pretty much been an unknown quantity. He was, remember, the one in Take That who couldn't boogie, couldn't wear the sexy outfits because he was too fat and certainly couldn't get the girls screaming for him. He's lean now with bulging pectorals, but the pandemonium has gone. The concert halls are actually modest. The dressing room is flooded out with ... one solitary pressie from a middle- aged fan. Also gone is the TT extravaganza: the costume changes, the light rigs hanging from the ceiling like spaceships, the fireworks, explosions and dancers. Gary is an ordered, meticulous man, and the disorder of 1997 left him a little rattled. Oh, he had the requisite big hits: "Love Won't Wait", "So Help Me Girl" and "Open Road". As expected, the songs lit up his career in a way Mark Owen, Howard Donald and Jason Orange could only dream about. But he's given two managers their marching orders since the TT split: Nigel Martin-Smith for not being into breaking him in the US enough, and Simon Fuller, who had enough on his plate at the time with the Spice Girls (until they dumped him, too).

Most of 1997 was spent criss-crossing the globe, plugging a rather bland Open Road album deliberately geared towards American tastes. As a result Gary has disconnected with Britain somewhat. On the pop front, he can't quite understand why Robbie Williams's "Angel" and All Saints' "Never Ever" hung around for months on end. He doesn't fit the other end of cool Britannia either. "I left school with very few qualifications, I just happened to have a spark for music. Who am I to tell people what's right or wrong? It frightens me when people write about politics in their records. A lot of young are smart, but a lot of them aren't. There's been a lot to answer for that sort of thing."

Gary needs to get back to basics again in 1998. The new album is written but unrecorded. "I wanna get back to my sound, not make albums for markets, or remix for markets, and not involve computers and fiddling with a drum sound for three days." Any previews of new songs tonight? "As someone in an audience, when the band say, `We are going to play four new songs', I think, `Oh, my God, don't do it'. I hate it. I think come on, let's go get a drink. I want to keep the audience in the palm of my hand tonight."

To do this, Gary plays very safe indeed. He constantly falls back on the kind of crowd-rousing patter he probably heard slip from the mouths of old cliched "professionals" when he was a teenager, dragging his keyboard around working men's clubs. "It sounds as if we're going to have a good time tonight," he drawls, after opening with a Hue and Cry cover version. One immediately has in mind a beer-gutted compere with a 1980s frilly shirt warming up the crowd in a smoky club. "It's like chicken in the basket," laughs the man next to me. The three St John's Ambulance folk nearby are rendered unemployed, because the audience age is on average five years older than at a Blur gig, and instead of knickers thrown on stage, someone hurls chocolate, which Gary scoffs delightedly.

Tellingly, the biggest squeals of the night are for "Back For Good", and a piano-bashing medley of Take That songs, although he pulls off nafftastic sentimentality for "Forever Love". There are three candles on his piano: one for Princess Diana, one for Versace and one for his gran, who all died last year. He sings, then blows out the candles. It's hard not to guffaw at the tackiness. If Robbie Williams is the new George Best, Gary Barlow is the new Cliff Richard.

Gary Barlow appears at the BIC Bournemouth on Thursday, Symphony Hall, Birmingham,Friday and the Apollo Hammersmith, Sunday. Tickets: 0161-828 1211.

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