ROBBIE WILLIAMS – Auckland February 14

Let’s start with the easy part: does Robbie Williams put on a good show? The answer is clearly yes. Williams has the jaunty swagger to command the big crowd in Auckland, be it with his big band, back up singers and dancers, or, all by himself, leading the audience acapella through a medley of songs from yesteryear. The fact he’s wearing a black singlet and black skirt – with what looks like a big star from the New Zealand flag on it – only adds to the occasion. He’s a lad. He knows it, his audience loves it, so let’s get it on. His opening line is I’m Robbie F***ing Williams, and this is my arse. He duly turns around, lifts the skirt, the camera zooms in, and away we go.

So yes, as we found in his media conference the day before, Robbie Williams is utterly, utterly at home in front of the spotlight. He virtually conducts the crowd, and he carries a long baton to help do it. His Heavy Entertainment Show is, as you’d expect, full of his hits, and peppered with surprises. I was genuinely taken aback – pleasantly so – by the treatment of Sweet Caroline, and I won’t say any more in case you’re seeing him in Dunedin this weekend. I don’t want to spoil it for you. I also didn’t expect the number of cover songs he played, but they were very well delivered, especially George Michael’s Freedom 90.

All this is well choreographed, but it’s in his banter with the audience, where he goes off script to react to people and signs in front of him, where you see his skill. He’s a generous performer, happy to tell jokes at his own expense. Someone throws him a flag which he duly wraps around his shoulders, only for the audience to start jeering when they realise it’s an Aussie flag. Williams handles this with aplomb and turns it into a joke against our neighbours across the Tasman.

So, if you’re a fan, you’re not going to be disappointed. It’s a big show from a big personality and Robbie Williams delivers the goods.

But here are a couple of other observations. I have not followed Robbie Williams closely, and this was the first time I’d seen him in concert. I enjoyed the spectacle and bravado of the show overall, but I also found it an amusing and slightly odd contrast between the actual music and the man’s image. And maybe that’s the trick to his success.

The music, after all, is pop. It’s well crafted, with catchy melodies and choruses everyone wants to sing along to. It’s mainstream. Of course at the height of his fame, he presented this music as some kind of likeable loutish rebel. He did the drugs, the alcohol, the sex, got the tattoos, and survived. No clean cut young man was our Robbie. And in this concert, he makes sure you don’t forget that.

So at the start of the show the big screen displays the lyrics of a Robbie version of God Save the Queen, It talks of all the aforementioned abuses, that he swings both ways and is well hung etc. I’m not sure I want to know that, but it clearly feeds the image. His chit chat throughout is sprinkled with the f word. It’s like he’s saying sure, I may be a dad now and a little mellower, but inside I’m still the same old Robbie. The skirt and the swagger and the tats on display confirm it. Lots of artists perform pop, but not many like him. That image differentiates him from the pack. At times I wondered how much was real, and how much was an artifice. But make no mistake, the audience loved it.

Last point on Robbie. He cleverly laughed at his own age – the concert took place the day after his 44th birthday – but he still trades on his sex appeal. The young woman who bared her breasts at him from the audience tells you that sex appeal is alive and kicking. But for how much longer? The six young women who danced on stage looked young enough to be his daughters (or nearly so). There was the odd touching of their bottoms, which was surely part of the show, but felt not right. Then we had him choosing a young woman to join him on stage for the song Something Stupid. He told the audience one reason he chose her was because of her tits, and excused himself for saying that by explaining he was a man of the 80’s. She joined him on the bench, very emotional, his arm around her, him looking into her eyes while he sang the line I love you. But she disclosed she was 19 and so again, you wonder how long he can keep playing this card. As it turned out, she told him that her mother had passed away, and to Williams’ great credit he relayed that to all of us, and dedicated the song to the young woman’s mum. Williams did this well and rescued the moment, and everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy what was going on. But it could have  been creepy.

Robbie Williams has a gift, no doubt. He turns a huge arena into an intimate setting. He somehow broadcasts his ego and at the same time makes you feel he’s one of you. His style of achieving that may not sit well with everyone, but for lovers of pop with an attitude, he’ll put a smile on your face.

Many thanks to Brad Holland for taking the photos for Crave last night.

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