Pictures by James Guiney
Qudos Bank Arena, January 28
Everything, even ultimate pop star status, has to end. It has for Robbie Williams.
He was the biggest star the UK has produced: genuinely a once-in-a-lifetime performer who sang, danced, titillated as he titivated, burned, crashed, rose again, and sold hand-over-fist.
A tabloid headline generator par excellence; a chart botherer greater than any other; a revealer and concealer always in plain sight; a work of fiction and a walking autobiography.
Now though Robbie Williams is an institution. A proper English one at that, like the British Museum or Tom Jones, like Windsor Castle or Elton John. Which is what he has always wanted, what he was always destined to be. What, really, we’ve always intended for him.
The Williams entertainment machine now is an edifice that has weathered everything and looks impervious to minor matters such as weather, fickle musical trends or indeed the presence, or otherwise, of recent hits, to sell out shows.
You go to his show because you know what he offers, because you’ve always gone, because it’s a certain result – at least if his heart is in it, and since 2012 it has been again.
Within the edifice are stored antiquities and familiarities of pop baubles cherished and modern standards bronzed and mounted for us to see each time we drop in. The only issue being where in the building/set list they are displayed this time.
Will he begin with Let Me Entertain You, a song which does exactly what it says it will with its barrelhouse piano, chorus you could hang a house on and massed terraces energy? (It was second song in, but effectively the proper kick-off because it is the perfect kick-off.)
Will he end the set, or the encore, with Angels, a ballad of equal parts sentimentality and sentiment that moves you personally even when 17,000 are singing it around you? (It was followed by some throwaways but effectively closed the encore.)
Which of the signature, full exposure ballads will it be this time? (Come Undone, She’s The One - lovely as ever.) Which of the stomping fun bits will raise the roof? (Kids, Rock DJ - romping as ever.) Which of the genuinely touching mid-tempo revelations that are his forte touch us? (Better Man, Feel - classy as ever)
Some 25 years into this there is no real need to add to that collection. In fact, additions are looked on suspiciously at first, measured against the permanent collection, and often enough found a little short.
So that there were only two songs from the Heavy Entertainment Show tour’s titular album - the title track and Love My Life – was neither surprising, nor cause for complaint.
The additions now tend to be more in the realm of guest appearances (his father, again, this time for a wobbly but sweet duet of Sweet Caroline) and odd covers thrown in for comic or tempo or diversionary purposes.
So a mash-up/medley of Living On A Prayer, Rehab, Take On Me, Simply The Best, Kiss, Can’t Touch This, Don’t You Want Me and Staying Alive – followed in the encore by Down Under - was like a TV variety show come to life, without the heavy-handed BBC Light Entertainment feel of the 2014 tour.
But, other covers served as a way of connecting his past with a longer/deeper history, providing the kind of historical overview a good institution can and should.
So instead of a Queen song this time, George Michael’s Freedom 90 followed on the heels of Cab Calloway’s Minnie The Moocher; Never Forget, from his alma mater, Take That, appeared mid-set; and two songs later, the frippery best known as a Sinatra family offcut, Somethin’ Stupid, did its lightweight best.
As with his oft-mocked rap moment, Rudebox, these are the indulgences of a man who can do as he pleases. But he’s allowed, because he pleases, and pleases so very well.
His voice now may be coarser than his early albums presented, his dancing may be a little less vigorous than once, his jokes a lot more familiar, but those who saw him in 2001, for example, know that the full showman has returned.
Which is, after all, what we’re here for. That’s what the ticket says, what the guidebooks have recommended, what history demands, and what we will expect next time, and the time after that, and the time after…...
The elevation to institution is complete.
Robbie Williams plays Qudos Bank Arena, March 1; A Day On The Green, Mt Duneed Estate, March 3; Adelaide 500, March 4; Perth Arena, March 7.