There was a strong sense of nostalgia about Robbie Williams’ Swings Both Ways performance. However, this didn’t manifest in the form of the greatest hits retrospective that might be expected from a world conquering pop-star. In fact, in his current guise, Williams largely avoids his back-catalogue of mega-hits in favour of an old-fashioned night of big band music that has the singer looking more like Sinatra than the guy who once topped the charts with “Rock DJ”.
It’s a bold decision from an artist to go in a new direction. There’s no telling if the fans will willingly go along for the ride. But Williams handles it with such composed self-assuredness that the audience hardly noticed they hadn’t heard any of his hits until a brief medley at the very end of the night. The setlist was primarily comprised of old time swing tunes like “Minnie the Moocher”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “New York, New York”, mixed in with Williams’ own material of the same genre. It was all catchy, accessible stuff that had the audience moving and swaying along.
Like a musical from a by-gone era, the show was divided into two halves, replete with lavish curtain and intermission sign. The set was a stunner: a three level design to host the cast of band-members and dancers; in the first half it was used as a majestic ballroom and then transformed into a luxury cruise-liner for act two. Amidst the nostalgic flavour, though, there was plenty of technology on display: through lighting, projections and, at one point, the singer suspended high above the stage in fat suit for, “No One Likes a Fat Pop Star”.
Such extravagant production design, however, can be the enemy of flexibility, with Williams presenting the same set list each night. However, the Sydney show was the last gig of the tour (with Williams about to head home to a very heavily pregnant wife), and there was a loose feeling to the evening, particularly in the singer’s interaction with the crowd. He was cheeky, charming and funny; certainly not afraid to laugh at himself.
Now entering his forties, Williams’ stage persona has evolved over time. There is still a hint of the hedonist there, for instance in the very suggestive lyrics of “Swings Both Ways” or through happily obliging a woman’s request to sign her breasts. But there is more of the family man about Williams these days. In one of the standout songs for the night, “Go Gentle”, we saw Robbie the father singing to his young daughter; he recalled his recently deceased father-in-law before giving us a rendition of “My Way”; then late in the second act he even brought out his own dad, Pete Williams, for a duet of a Duke Ellington number. It was a nice moment that the performer was clearly enjoying.
At the end of the night we got a rapid-fire medley of some of the early stuff (“Let Me Entertain You”, “Rock DJ”, “Come Undone” etc) and an obligatory rendition of “Angels” that had the capacity crowd all singing along. The concert then closed on a slight change of pace with an amped cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”, in keeping with the nautical set of the second act.
It was a fun night of music and spectacle that proved there are more dimensions to this nineties boy-band alumni than first anticipated. His ability to adapt while remaining the consummate entertainer suggests that, unlike many of his contemporaries, Robbie Williams still has a very long career ahead of him.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Photos from http://www.robbiewilliams.com