First Night: Robbie Williams, BBC Electric Proms, London

Size is everything as Robbie takes a walk on the wild side

Andy Gill
Wednesday 21 October 2009 00:00
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Securing Robbie Williams' 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, 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. If they were gambling by focusing primarily on unfamiliar new material, they were ready to batter the audience into submission, if necessary.

Previously, there has been a distinct tendency for Robbie Williams 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. 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 about how it was his gran's favourite song. "I'm sure she's looking down on us now," he said, pausing briefly to gaze heavenwards before adding, "She's not dead – just really condescending!"

Musically, the new material ranges from the terse, twitchy "Bodies" to the chamber-pop of "Blasphemy"" . 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".

But predictably it's the set-closing "Angels" and an encore of "Millennium" which secure the most enthusiastic responses, after which a cute run through his producer's lone hit, "Video Killed The Radio Star", sends everyone home with a hum in their heart.

And despite my own deep-seated antipathy, even I was impressed by the easy assurance with which Williams made light work of a risky gamble.

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