Arrogant. Sleazy. Egotistical. Clichéd. Show-off. Chauvinistic.
These are just some of the words that have been used to describe Robbie Williams.
But there are more that should be added to that list.
Seasoned performer. Entertainer. Singer. Showman. Confident. Fun.
The music industry sea is filled with a lot of fish, some big, some small. But they don’t come much bigger than Robbie Williams. And for some that is where the problems begin. Playing to a record breaking 66,500 strong crowd at Melbourne’s Telstra Dome to end his ‘Close Encounters’ world tour, Williams always draws a mixed reaction. This can sometimes happen when one person becomes bigger than himself. He is someone who has a rumoured 80 million pound contract with EMI, a person who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for selling more than 1.6 million tickets for his 2006 world tour in just one day, and has spent the last year on the road to perform his 40 plus date tour during which he entertained over 3 million fans across the world. Given his great success, incredible popularity and supportive fans, he is an easy target which people love to criticise. This is a real shame, for Robbie Williams may just show some of these bitter, cynical people a good time if they’d just open themselves up to the experience.
Telstra Dome is an amazing venue and walking in you are struck by the incredible stage which seriously redefines the stadium event experience. The excitement and energy in the air is palpable and builds noticeably as more and more fans flow into the Dome in a constant wave. The tour DJ Chris Coco was on stage to warm the crowd up and presented an interesting mix to get people on their feet and moving. Next up was Australian dance act, Sneaky Sound System who offered perfect support with their high energy uplifting beats. They are irresistible, and while the stadium is not yet at capacity the already substantial crowd takes in everything on offer. Performing some of their well known tracks including ‘Pictures’ and ‘I Love It’, they prove themselves to be dynamite stage performers. Leaving the stage at around 8pm, the wait begins for the man everyone is there to see.
With the crowd now really starting to pour in, the energy levels rise to a new level, creating a definite buzz in the air. Everyone was ready to have a good time and the feeling was electric and infectious. At around nine, the lights went down, the roar of the crowd went up, and the stage came to life with light and sound, blasting out the sequence of notes from Steven Spielberg’s movie, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. An appropriate opening given that this is the ‘Close Encounters’ tour. The crowd joined in with the countdown and with a blast of fireworks, Williams enters the stage from below, meeting with an almighty roar from the crowd, as he broke straight into ‘Radio’. Followed quickly by a clear crowd favourite ‘Rock DJ’, the crowd was lapping it all up as Williams worked all parts of the stage and made sure everyone was welcome and aware that he had arrived.
Robbie Williams is a consummate performer, he knows what works, what the audience wants and how to deliver it. Everything from chatting to the crowd about how much he enjoys Australia, talking to a fan’s friend on her mobile phone, exposing his toned stomach or ripping his shirt open…he is first and foremost an entertainer. The thing with Williams though is that the give and take is not one-sided, the audience responds to his honest and generous performance with a real return of love. Best shown through raised hands, screams of appreciation and spine tingling harmonies which join voices with Williams, the love shown to them is returned in kind. He is not just about the music, this is a concert that gives a shared experience to all 66,500 fans.
It is always going to be a challenge for an artist to connect with audiences of any great size, but Williams is a master at this. The stage itself is built for maximum audience accessibility with its arms opened wide and a centre stage which allows Williams the chance to interact directly with the fans at the front. Between songs he engages the audience with his witty, cheeky banter, asking the crowd to join in, raise their hands and light up the stadium with their mobile camera flashes. Anything he asks, the crowd happily obliges. When his friend, Jonny Wilkes, joins him on stage he starts the crowd on a massive ‘Australian’ wave and they then get the crowd participating in a karaoke version of ‘Strong’, which manages to bring a tear to both their eyes. You are not going to get a one-on-one intimate experience in a venue of this size, but this is a pretty good substitute. The video screens provide excellent close up vision of Williams so the crowd can catch every facial expression and emotion which they may otherwise not be able to see.
People go to live music acts for more than just the music, and I think this is something that can be easily forgotten in this world that demands perfection and asks the impossible of everything and everyone. If people want to simply enjoy a perfect rendition of every song in an artist’s repertoire, they can stay at home and listen to a CD. Live music offers something else, a place where people can gather together to share in an atmosphere of combined emotion. It is this overwhelming feeling of positive energy, support and love which keeps people coming together to spend time worshipping at the altar of Williams.
Williams often copes flak for being an overtly arrogant ‘showman’, but this is not entirely true. Sure at heart Williams is an attention seeker, and he seems to crave the love that comes his way at these events, like it is needed to sustain him. All that we see when he performs is the real person and his larger than life personality. He is a jokester, a larrikin, and a fun lad who enjoys attention from the ladies, would happily share a joke over a drink or two with friends and often wears his heart brazenly on his sleeve. There is a lot of substance beneath the surface bravado.
Referring to the ‘controversy’ caused by smoking onstage during his Brisbane concerts, he gave a tongue in cheek apology as he lit up once again. Knowing that there were a lot of young people in the audience though he had this to say, ‘I know these things will probably kill me one day. I’m not a role model…Warney’s a role model’. And with that the crowd was led into a chant of ‘Warne-y’, ‘Warne-y’.
Williams has an uncanny ability to connect with an audience, breaking down the barriers between him and us, making it feel more like we are just catching up with an old friend. He jokes, talks about the entertainment world, and how he is responsible for ‘facilitating the entertainment for the evening’. His conversation always feels very honest and conveys his own amazement with how big he has become. I’m not sure how a person stays grounded and ‘normal’ in the music industry, especially given the levels of adulation that he experiences, but somehow he does.
In a show that includes some movie pop culture references like ‘Nobody puts baby in the corner’ and ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat’, Bono impersonations, short renditions of ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Take a Walk On The Wild Side’, and a touching tribute to his days with ‘Take That’, what more can an audience ask for? Well more music of course, and there was plenty of that. Williams performed many of his favourite songs including, ‘Come Undone’, ‘Sin, Sin, Sin’, ‘Millennium’, ‘Make Me Pure’, and ‘Advertising Space’. With a beautiful and spine-tingling rendition of ‘Feel’ which had most of the stadium joining in with the singing, Williams said a quick goodbye and thank you before disappearing below the stage…but we knew he’d be back.
With the lights off, the buzz in the crowd once again built up as we all waited for a glimpse of his return. And before too long return he did, and in spectacular fashion with lights, fire and smoke. With an encore to rival all encores, Williams gave us the only song he performed from his new album, the title track ‘Rudebox’. No Robbie Williams show can be complete without a goose-bump inducing rendition and sing-along of ‘Angels’, and true to form it sounded amazing, with even Williams becoming visibly overcome with emotion. The concert closed with ‘Kids’, and while Ms Minogue did not personally appear, the audience took her place with Robbie announcing, ‘You be Kylie, I’ll be Robbie’.
Just to clear up a few rumours and so-called facts currently doing the rounds. He did not look tired, the show was not lethargic, he was high energy and seemed to have as great a time as everyone in the crowd. But perhaps most importantly of all there is no chance of him retiring just yet, referencing the crowd and the amazing atmosphere he said, ‘How could I retire? I’ll come back and retire in Australia some other time’. While he would be very welcome to visit our country at any time, let’s hope that any plans for retirement are a long, long way away.