*** Warning: contains spoilers for those who are seeing him live ***
Robbie Williams began his latest mammoth tour with the first of two nights at Manchester's impressive Etihad Arena. Coming around 10 days after the awful attack at a sister venue in the city naturally the events overshadowed the gig - signs warning people not to be alarmed about pyrotechnics the most obvious sign in the run up to the gig - but the crowd was packed and enthusiastic and the resolve to not give in to terror formed an emotional back-end to a gig that was visually spectacular, inventive and packed with the best of Williams' increasingly large back catalogue, even if a few choice favourites were absent.
The gig began with a generous 45-minute support set from Erasure, lead singer Andy Bell and keyboardist Vince Clarke were dwarfed by the set with only the world's sparkliest dress and two voluptuous support singers (which could have been drag queens, but it was too far to see) for support. I'm not a huge fan of the duo so a lot of the songs played were unknown to me but it was hard not to be won over by the thumping dance beats and those older than me seemed to be enjoying it. They did perform a great version of their current single 'Love You To The Sky' early on, which was welcomed, plus a well received version of 'Sometimes', and closer 'A Little Respect' really setting the mood, with a small rain shower as they walked on stage just before half-seven having little effect in dampening the mood. For me they didn't have the catalogue of songs that the Pet Shop Boys had who supported Take That at my last visit to the Etihad, but the performance was spot-on and there was plenty of energy from the stage and enthusiasm from the crowd in return.
With thirty minutes to kill before Robbie arrived on stage for his 100-minute long set, we got to enjoy the two huge Robbie silhouettes being filled in by some CGI-fly-posterers and the occasional corporate sponsor message.
The set opened with a hilarious crowd-sing-a-long as the words of the national anthem were tweaked to be focused on the singer, with some well written barbs in his own direction relating to drugs, his success in America, rapping and infamous single Rudebox (more on that later).
With the sing-a-long getting the crowd warmed up Robbie emerged on stage in his boxing-gown attire and surrounded by similarly themed dancers to perform the double-header opening songs of the tour's titular track, the huge Robbie-shaped screens helping the crowd see him from a stage that was otherwise too-low to really get a good view of what he was doing, and 'Let Me Entertain You', which was accompanied with the usual good feeling and singing from the crowd and some great press-cutting visuals that mashed up the lyrics with gif-like snatches from a whole range of videos from debut single 'Freedom' to the present day. The visuals, as hoped for at such a show, were breath-taking throughout the entire gig and really added an extra element and it was a shame there wasn't a real-life rewind button at times to capture all the details, and some of the effects on live camera work were something to behold.
The hits kept coming in the show. We got 'Monsoon' to visuals of lighting, ran and a confetti and the art-inspired 'Party Like A Russian', the first time of many in the night where Williams mentioned his chart positions, which was possibly meant as being a bit self-depreciating but came across as a little too bitter really. The graphics complimented the song well, especially the well-timed sequence set to the 'inside a plane, inside a boat' moment.
In a backward looking, retrospective section, we got some anecdotes about 'Take That' and a spot-on version of contemporary collaboration 'The Flood' before Willliams' own debut was whipped out after many years in the wilderness for a monochromatic tribute to George Michael who recently left us.
With the first of two funny anecdotes about fatherhood, Williams clambered into a mechanical boxing glove to go out into the crowd, echoing previous tours, to deliver the brilliant 'Love My Life', and a mechanical failure at the end added a bit of humour, and it could well have been scripted in. The observation that it does seem odd to sing a song about loving your kids whilst traversing in a boxing glove was correct from Robbie, but his suggestion that he didn't even want it felt weird as surely he would have final creative say?
Moving on we got a fun crowd section going through some 90s songs in a karaoke fashion before 'Come Undone' was mashed-up with a sing-a-long ending of Take That tune 'Never Forget' which Williams confessed he'd added in because of jealousy over the crowd reactions from his time re-joining the boy band on tour several years ago.
Continuing on, a member of the crowd was brought onto the stage and fitted with a Nina Conti-style face-mask to perform a duet of 'Something Stupid', which worked well but was slightly surreal, and he admitted at the end that they were trying new things for the tour which might not be re-appearing, but it could have again been part of his banter.
Up next we got most of 'Rudebox', which was a surprise, and as a fan of the track was pleased to get the chance to sing-a-long but it seemed to get a muted response from the rest of the crowd, then a spirited version of 'Kids' with the singer joining him having some proper lungs on her. The rap was missing, sadly.
With a retro television appearing in the background we got a duet between Robbie and his dad on Neil Diamond classic 'Sweet Caroline', at least once the sound guys had turned on Pete's mic, and aside from the weird juxtaposition of his father in full suit and Robbie in his boxing dressing-gown, was a fun crowd sing-a-long that nodded to his swing moments.
As we neared the end of the set we got 'Motherfucker' from his latest album. To my amusement two parents behind me told their young daughter - maybe eight - never to repeat that word as he mentioned it in the anecdote that preceded it. I didn't get chance to see if they covered her ears for the multiple times it was sung loudly by the crowd, or indeed the drug references from 'Come Undone' that came earlier. With the crowd in full voice this worked really well live, especially when combined with 'Hey Jude' at the end and Robbie's own tribute to Sergeant Pepper.
The main set wrapped up with 'Feel', with lasers dominating the arena, and 'Rock DJ' with its neon-vibe graphics and bouncy pop feel.
Williams returned on stage for a three-song encore which was heavily focussed on recent events. The lyrics to 'Strong' were tweaked to show defiance in the face of terror complete with karaoke lyrics on screen and multiple crowd-led encores. 'Angels' was dedicated to those who lost their lives and a clearly emotional Robbie - tears on his cheeks - struggled to complete much more than the opening and closing verses, but the crowd had his back. With 'My Way' used to finish off, the mood was judged about right in memory of those affected by the events last week though perhaps went on a little too much.
Overall those turning up for a good night got one, with a great selection of songs, visuals and anecdotes. Some of the elements - the person pulled out from the crowd, the novelty stage-arm device - are perhaps a little tired, some songs like 'Candy' and 'Mixed Signals' were mysteriously missing, and Williams occasional came across as a little bitter about some songs and their chart performances, like a multi-millionaire muttering how they should have earnt more, but these were minor quibbles in an energetic, fun and exciting show that even saw him take the mickey out of himself by having a stage hand bring on a large bottle of Listerene and some hand-sanitizer during 'Somethin' Stupid'.
It was a great night from a top showman, with a selection of brilliant songs well delivered both musically and visually. (8/10)
Click here to view the entire set-list.