Rock column, The Mail on Sunday, June 11 2006

Robbie Williams
Croke Park, Dublin

Robbie Williamsís latest European tour is entitled Close Encounters. As he
is performing at some of the biggest venues on the circuit, this is
presumably a little joke. In Dublin, where the tour opened on Friday, he
played Croke Park, a Gaelic football ground that is as vast and forbidding
as they come. The stands are grey concrete and the pitch is protected by a
layer of white plastic, so on a warm summer night the scene is almost
wintry: a Brueghel with skimpy tops.

Stadium rock is a tricky proposition for any singer, but Robbie is
attempting something harder still - stadium pop. Even Madonna doesnít try
it any more. To get a sports ground going you need either fire, the
stirring sincerity of Bono or Springsteen, or else a fusillade of great
songs, such as the Stones or Paul McCartney have. Robbie is a long way from
either category.

So he elects to start the show with a bang. Fireworks shoot up from the
stage, and all along the walkway that reaches out into the crowd, little
puffs of flame appear, from nowhere, before vanishing like wannabes. In the
dark, it would be spectacular. As we are still in fairly broad daylight,
itís more a statement of intent.

And then here he is, arriving vertically, on a platform that pops him
straight on to the mini-stage at the end of the walkway, an off-white
circle with a yellow border. Robbie has served himself up on a plate.

The music starts poorly with Radio, which is both shrill and lumpen, before
picking up with the thumpy swagger of Rock DJ. All evening it ebbs and
flows. Robbieís oeuvre is patchy, lurching from likeable anthems to
pointless pastiche. Heís a singles act, not someone to listen to for nearly
two hours.

The task of carrying the show falls to his personality. Itís like an
experiment: how far can you go on charisma, candour and not a lot of
content? The answer is, a long way. If you can work a crowd, it doesnít
matter if that crowd is 80,000 strong. And Robbie has something extra that
connects with people: vulnerability.

Where other stars try to hide their nerves, he blithely confides: ĎI was
s----ing myself before I came on stageí. Later he apologises for his
language Ė ĎI do tend to swear a lot when Iím scaredí. Introducing a song
about a girl he knew as a teenager in Stoke-on-Trent, he adds that she was
Ďthe love of my lifeí.

He is so good at handing out these titbits, he ends up being more
compelling between songs than during them. This isnít really a gig at all:
itís an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, with only one contestant, one
possible winner. Even the tour logo has Big Brotherish overtones.

The show sags badly in the middle as Robbie brings on his friend Jonathan
Wilkes for a pallid Rat Pack routine, then talks about the re-formed Take
That (scoring points, inevitably) and sings Back For Good not nearly as
well as they do. He plays the mediocre No Regrets and the dreary Stones
tribute A Place To Crash, and the show seems to be falling apart. But then
he sings Come Undone and Feel, two of his warmer songs, and it all slots
back into place. For once, he is brandishing his frailties in a way that
doesnít just feel like flexing his muscles.

For the encore of Let Me Entertain You and Angels, the fireworks go off
again, this time in darkness, and Robbie reappears in a white tracksuit on
a gantry 100 ft up. If you canít be on top of your game, you may as well be
on top of your stage. But he comes down to earth with a bump when the
gondola that is supposed to lower him back into place fails to work.

Typically, he tells us all about it two minutes later, and even makes a
headline-grabbing promise to come back and give a free concert in Dublin.
ĎIíve not been very good tonight,í he says, which is true, but he hasnít
been very bad either. Heís just been Robbie Williams.