“It used to be cocaine and strippers backstage, now it’s hummus. My life is so much better now, or so my wife tells me” quips Robbie Williams as he gazes across the 65,000 people gathered in Hyde park.
The joke continues a string of gags pertaining to his new-found ‘clean persona’, with the show this evening opening on the so-called ‘National Anthem of Robbie’, referencing his stints in rehab and poking fun at his inability to break the USA.
Robbie’s personal life has never been a secret - in fact it’s been an inherent part of his act from the day he joined Take That, being branded the bad boy from the offset. Flirting unabashedly with his crowd of middle aged women, families, grandparents and everything in-between, he jokes, “I love you guys. In the 90s I tried to love you all individually,” in-between wisecracks about his new Weight Watchers partnership.
The humour breaks through his veneer of arrogance, strutting about like a rock/pop/not-really-rap deity in a Freddie Mercury-esque sequinned jacket, instigating call and responses in the same vein, except lacing them with tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “Bidet, tiny toilet”.
Opening with a fitting entrance of on-stage fireworks and the snarlingly obnoxious ‘Let Me Entertain You’, his conceit knows no bounds as he screams “I am Robbie fucking Williams” to a crowd who most definitely already know who he is.
Working his way through a meticulously balanced set of covers, hits and Take That anthems, he tackles an impressive setlist not too dissimilar to our own Gigwise dream setlist, showcasing one of his best vocal performances in years.
Hitting the high notes with conviction in ‘Monsoon’, ‘Old Before I Die’ and ‘Come Undone’, his uncharacteristically pitch-perfect performance is almost cinematic against the magnificent hues of pink and crimson the setting sun casts over the park.
Turning the crowd, old and young, to wobbly-legged putty in his loveable hands, he brings on the contestants of last year’s X Factor to help him warble his way through Take That’s ‘Never Forget’, inciting the biggest singalong yet. Such tear-jerking moments bring a profound edge to the light-hearted festival closing set, reminding us why Robbie’s had a triumphant career spanning nearly 30 years.
He asks a poignant, “England, am I still your son?”, a play on Escapology lyrics but also a self-assured nod to his undying national treasure status. Continuing the son theme, he spins a heartwarming dit about watching his Dad perform on-stage when he was a kid, and deciding that he wanted to do exactly that - before introducing his own Dad, Pete Williams, to the stage for a wholesome rendition of the crowd-pleasing ‘Sweet Caroline’.
Taking the only opportunity in the whole show to showcase his newer material, he dedicates ‘Love My Life’ to his kids in an emotive speech, before slowing the pace temporarily for ‘Eternity’ and ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, during which he invites a bewildered fan up from the audience and proceeds to give her a lap dance and stick his fingers up her nose. Is this the new rock n’ roll?
The show is a dramatic leap from his recent Vegas residence, which consisted of primarily swing covers and songs in the vein of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’ (don’t worry, we’re unsure why too). This evening is more of an unashamed, pompous celebration of all things Robbie, complete with self-indulgent crowd interaction and garish suits that wouldn’t look out of place on Elton John. Showmanship and ego abound, he melts the hearts of the crowd further with British anthems ‘Millennium’, ‘No Regrets’ and the career-defining ‘Feel’.
He asks the front row, “Do you know the words to my song..s? Except ‘Angels’? Fucking everyone knows that song. Stay for the hit,” in a rare moment of self deprecation.
Whether it’s the family life, the Vegas glow or maybe just the mountains of backstage hummus, predictable show-closer ‘Angels’ sounds better than ever, a euphoric close to a genuinely touching, sentimental performance from the best in showbiz.
He asked to entertain us, and we let him. Robbie, you’ll forever be our son.