Sunday, 11 June 2017

Singing On A Sofa With Your Dad While Morphing Into Daniel O'Donnell

I will get around to finishing the story of my latest health mishap but I just wanted to drop this in here to let you know that it hasn't all been bad recently. I have had some enjoyment amid the vile medicines, nebulisers and assaults on my limbs.

Having been released from the hospital on the Friday I was free to go to Manchester on the Saturday for the Robbie Williams gig at the Etihad Stadium. We stayed at The Brittannia which for those of you visiting these pages for access titbits is accessible only via the Wave Bar next door. The hotel concierge has to come outside and lead you through into the bar, which was as packed as you might expect a bar in Manchester city centre to be on a Saturday afternoon when Robbie Williams is in town, and use the lift to circumnavigate the steps which sit at the entrance to the hotel.

It's a spectacularly bad lift, too. Once you're inside the door doesn't open, almost as if they don't want you to use it without the concierge standing at the top waiting to open the door for you and let you out. Before you hit reception you are led through a very nice bar area. It was strangely quiet when we arrived there and the queue for checking in was beginning to stretch back towards Wave Bar. In this bar by reception four Budweisers sets you back £10. Anybody who drinks regularly in city centres knows you take that and tell checking in to your room that it can wait.

So a very pleasant couple of hours was passed storing up trouble for the days ahead via the medium of lager. Truth be told I knew there was a bit of risk involved in having a few beers after the shenanigans I'd been through earlier that week but how often are you going to a Robbie gig? How frequently do you expect to find yourself drinking reasonably priced Budweiser in a very nice if not totally accessible hotel? You have to live for today.

The plan was to get something to eat before getting on the tram over to the Etihad. Trams in Manchester are so much more accessible than trains. Despite the manic crowds at an event like this you are very unlikely to find yourself left on the platform swearing at a staff member who is not even trying to create the illusion that he gives a shit. For one thing the staff are helpful and therefore useful and for another the platforms are flat anyway. No ramps required, no phoning ahead to your destination to try to make sure you're not stranded. It's a system which, while not perfect, is very much aware that it is 2017 and not 1917.

We tried Wave Bar, Emma having had to take the stairs and play concierge to make sure I didn't spend the night in the lift, but like many other places it was too busy. One of the things about knocking about with biffs is that you have to find a seat for the able bodied person in a bar otherwise there's no point staying. You can't really have a conversation in a noisy bar if one of you has to stand up. You end up sitting in silence which is not particularly troubling if you're with someone you live with and have known for nearly 20 years but must look a bit odd to others. This is just one of the myriad things you able bodied types don't have to worry about. In that situation you can just stand together and have a drink and a chat. We had to go.

We found one American grill place but nothing on the menu that inspired, and Ask was offering a table only after a 45-minute wait. So we had a tuna sandwich in Pret-A-Manger, basically Ian Beale's cafe with an inflated sense of its own social standing. It served a purpose. An important gap was filled.

We did get chance to visit a couple of pubs before we got on the tram. There was a Wetherspoons in which I repeatedly tried to ask a woman if we could take the spare chair at her table only to discover when she eventually turned to face me that she was deaf. I was at the side of her but a level below at the bottom of a small set of steps. Until she turned her head she didn't even know I was there let alone that I was talking to her. I get that a lot with women so it came as some surprise when I realised that she was deaf. She gave us the chair. In the Piccadilly Tavern next door I spend a very pleasant 10 or 15 minutes watching Wigan get annhialated by Hull FC. No matter where I am in the world or what I'm doing there is always pleasure to be had in watching Wigan get battered.

I'll skip the tram journey and move swiftly on to moaning about the lack of WiFi or indeed any internet coverage at the Etihad Stadium. We had decent seats, closer than last time we saw Robbie there in 2013 but I had to go back out to the concourse to get on to the internet. It wasn't unlike A & E at Whiston in that regard although I still had high hopes of enjoying this experience rather more than I savoured a Shit Smoothie and a cannula or three.

Charged with helping me do that were Erasure. An almost forgotten relic of the late 80s and early 90s Erasure are as camp now as they were then. Singer Andy Bell has mercifully put away the shorts but still manages to somehow get away with strutting around in sparkly trousers. Now, as then, he is accompanied by several enthusiastic female dancers while bandmate Vince Clarke stands some distance away at the back of the stage strumming his guitar almost reluctantly, as if he isn't with any of these embarrassing exhibitionists at the front. He may not be all that visible but the whole shooting match would collapse without Vince.

There's no big screens in operation at this point. So it's just as well that I would much rather listen to Erasure than look at them. Bell's a very good live performer and his voice doesn't seem to lose anything live. It's surprising how many Erasure songs you know when you hear them again after 25 years or so. We all remember 'Sometimes' and 'Respect' but what about 'Victim Of Love', 'I Love To Hate You', 'Oh L'amour', 'Blue Savannah' and 'Chorus'? Bewilderingly, Erasure were able to play a 45-minute set of songs that I mostly knew without once having to resort to an Abba medley. When they left the stage I remember thinking that, far from dragging on, their set was a bit short.

But it was almost time. On each side of the stage were two massive screens, the shape of Robbie's head, chest and arms. With boxing gloves on. No, I don't know why either. His entrance, like a lot of his show, was somewhat self parodic. An alternative version of Land Of Hope & Glory, the words splashed across the Robbie-shaped screens. He's always had a bit of humour about him but he's full on playing this for laughs now. And then he appears, mercifully before it goes over into Russ Abbott territory, back to the crowd and dressed in a red boxers robe. It's all gloriously tacky. It's The Heavy Entertainment Show.

The first half an hour is rip-roaring. He follows the 'Heavy Entertainment Show' with a rousing and satisfyingly predictable rendition of 'Let Me Entertain You' and straight into one of my particular favourites 'Monsoon'. 'Party Like A Russian' is energetic enough to keep the place rocking even if it's not one I'd have chosen, and then it's the first of a couple of Take That numbers. There's not too much wrong with 'The Flood' and 'Never Forget' is almost universally loved whatever the state of Gary Barlow's tax bill. But if you're being churlish you might grumble about listening to Take That songs when you've paid to see Robbie Williams. I like both but not everybody does.

Robbie's first solo hit, before 'Angels' forced cynics like me to listen to Life Thru A Lens and take a different view, was a cover of George Michael's 'Freedom 90'. With Michael's relatively recent passing I suppose it's no surprise to see Williams belting out his own version at every live opportunity. It's quite a fitting tribute even if I just want him to play 'Karma Killer' and 'Me And My Monkey' instead. Before the soundtrack to my life that is 'Come Undone' he offers the anti-soundtrack to it, the altogether too cheery and positive 'I Love My Life'. It's a pleasant tune but I'm not feeling the sentiment, not even at a Robbie gig with a beer in my hand. I'm going back to the hospital in the morning.

Presumably to give himself a rest Robbie then opts for a bit of a chat to the audience, in between a medley of seemingly random songs performed a capella. Like The Flying Pickets. No? Ask your dad. These include 'Living On A Prayer' by Bon Jovi, 'Take On Me' by A-Ha, 'Rehab' by Amy Winehouse and others finished off with a bit of Take That's 'Everything Changes'. Well....he did sing the lead on that one at the time. Buried within are a couple of bona fide Robbie tunes such as 'She's The One' and 'Old Before I Die' but again it's a little off topic for the more hardline Robbie enthusiast.

Then things get really strange. There's a guest appearance from Rick Astley. Yes, it's really him bellowing out 'Never Gonna Give You Up' and he's doing so in a way that Robbie can't match. Astley owns that song so yeah, you can join in, but don't be offended if you get out-performed even if you are Robbie Williams. How much you enjoy it depends very much on your attitude towards nostalgia and to Stock, Aitken And Waterman classics. I enjoyed it but can we have 'No Regrets' now? 'Something Beautiful'?

No. After Rick we get the dreadful 'Rudebox', a perfect opportunity for more drinks from the bar. 'Kids' is more like it but it seems that Astley's old stable-mate Kylie couldn't be persuaded to appear. The stand in is an outstanding singer but well....she'll never be Kylie any more than I'll ever be Robbie or Rick Astley. As guest singers go though the next one sees the show reach an uncomfortable nadir. Things can only get better from here as Robbie introduces his dad Pete, a club singer more at home on Phoenix Nights than in a packed football stadium. As father and son sit together on a couch singing ' Sweet Caroline' I remember noting darkly how far removed this is from Knebworth. Robbie had a bit of attitude then, a bit of rock'n'roll. If he keeps this schmalzy sentiment up he'll be about as relevant as sir Cliff before he turns 45. Maybe he doesn't care any more but he's morphing into Daniel O'Donnell.

He does lift his game with a sensational performance of 'Feel', but that's a song written when Robbie Williams was Robbie Williams. Troubled, hedonistic and prone to bouts of drug and alcohol-fuelled depression. He's found happiness now. Marriage, kids...which is great but it's all a bit happy-clappy for me. Before the encore there's just time for 'Rock DJ' which is a song I hate but is at least performed with the vigour and actual oomph that is classically Robbie.

The encore is spectacular. Eagle eyes will have noted that he hasn't done 'Angels' yet so there's that. Say what you like about Robbie but 'Angels' is one of the greatest songs ever written. People gnash their teeth and mutter about pop music, painting their walls black and burning their Kings Of Leon albums as soon as they get a hit record, but you will struggle to find a more brilliantly structured pop ballad than 'Angels'. It will be played 100 years from now much like the very best offered by Elvis or The Beatles. Hopefully 'Rudebox' will not.

Accompanying the mighty 'Angels' is a version of 'Strong' adapted in tribute to the victims of the recent Manchester Arena terror attack. You may have seen him perform it at Ariana Grande's benefit gig at Old Trafford the following night. I can confirm that he hit the high notes here much more easily than he did at Ariana's gig. He was demonstrably struggling by then. By the way Ariana... Again, pop music might not be your thing and I'd never heard any of her music before the bombing, but the way she has carried herself throughout the whole ordeal has been nothing short of heroic. She's an inspiration and they ought to give her the freedom of Manchester.

Back to Robbie, and the crowd pleasing 'My Way' to finish. This is in my own ropey karaoke repertoire which gives you an idea of how easy it is to sing. But it is no less enjoyable for all that, much like Robbie's performance as a whole. It's Heavy Entertainment, and the only thing I'd change about it is....well.....the set list....

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