A homely young star, and the return of Robbie Williams. Pop column, Mail on Sunday, October 25 2009

Little Boots
Roadmender, Northampton

Robbie Williams
Roundhouse, London

Little Boots has made it so big, so quickly, with her irresistible hit Remedy, that the Roadmender’s in Northampton seemed too modest a venue for the start of her British tour. It’s a plain brick box, smaller than a tennis court, made for acts whose fame lies ahead of them.

She comes on in a shiny cowl, as if George Lucas had made a film about monks. The cowl is soon ditched to reveal an amiable blonde from Preston who looks young for her age (25). I never get a glimpse of her boots, little or otherwise, but you can’t miss the Lady Gaga hotpants, which are big, spangly and black.

The difference is in the thighs. Lady Gaga’s look as if they are bared in case she needs to crush some rival for the number one spot, whereas Little Boots is more like a kid who has emerged from the dressing-up drawer, unsure what to do next. ‘I haven’t been this nervous for ages,’ she says, which doesn’t help.

Her music is electro-pop, the prevailing sound of the years just before she was born. Back then, electro belonged to boys, fiddling with primitive synthesisers like frustrated inventors. A generation on, it has been colonised by girls, who are now just as likely to sit in their bedrooms assembling songs on their laptops.

Politically, this is progress; artistically, it’s a mixed blessing. There’s a chill in electro, an alien quality that seems more naturally male. Little Boots’ lesser songs fail to rise above it, leaving the crowd cold.

Her serviceable voice is thinner than on record, possibly worn out from touring: ‘we just got back,’ she wearily confides, ‘from the entire world’. Later, when her favourite gizmo, the tenori-on, fails to work, she admits to being ‘tragically under-rehearsed’. She took the words right out of my notes.

After half an hour, you get the feeling that she has risen too far too fast, and that the star-making process of today has much to answer for. But then something happens.
The synths fall silent in mid-song as her two sidemen bash out a tribal beat, cheerfully reminiscent of Adam and the Ants. Little Boots sings over it, and suddenly her voice warms up. She’s like a tennis player, losing the first set before romping through the second.

The fans join in on some sophisticated handclaps, and songs like Click hit the sweet spot. Little Boots knows how to generate momentum from her machinery, whooshing the listener into the chorus. She has held Remedy back and now it sweeps into the room like a celebrity. It’s a proper hit, with a melody so warm that the chill of the synths becomes a welcome contrast.

She has won the third set too, but then she goes and blows the fourth. Something induces her to appear for the encore in a white towelling robe, as if dragged from her hotel room. She plays a clunky piano ballad, full of childish rhymes, and makes a shambolic call for requests which produces only a pallid version of a forgotten New Order song.

Again she rallies, ditching the robe and playing the punchy Stuck On Repeat, half on piano, half with the synths, which by now are feeling like old friends. This girl knows how to get out of jail.

Robbie Williams has just done something wildly untypical, something he hasn’t done since the mid-Nineties: he has made himself scarce. He has been off the scene for three years, surely an eternity to a hyperactive soul. Was he bruised by the critical drubbing of his last album, Rudebox, or just shellshocked at the triumphant comeback by his old mates from Take That?

Returning to open the BBC Electric Proms at the Roundhouse, Robbie was as nervy as a junior synth star. He needn’t have worried: the crowd loved him as before, and even put up with his painfully self-conscious jokes. Old favourites like Feel and Angels turned this Victorian railway shed into a mini-stadium, swaying with youthful nostalgia. The new songs, despite being produced by Trevor Horn, were more patchy; Robbie still doesn’t seem to know when he’s being funny and true, and when he’s disappearing up himself.