In his new cultural study ‘Retromania’, Simon Reynolds considers reunion albums and nostalgic tours as a way of acknowledging our unconscious obsession with places, sounds and feelings from our past. For instance, your local rough neck public house, long considered a blot on the landscape, develops a sort of charm after a while. And Take That, after 20 years in our lives, now command five star reviews from hip broadsheets rather than sarcastic guffaws.
Progress 2011 is the biggest tour in UK history, crashing phone networks and online ticket outlets with over a million tickets sold in one day. And it’s mainly because of one man: Robbie Williams. Stationed at career crossroads, Williams took a calculated risk re-joining his former bandmates for last year’s acclaimed ‘Progress’ album. Freed from an EMI contract, he has since roped in Gary Barlow to co-write and produce a new solo album. And after tonight, it’s clear Williams still has the clout to perform at this level.
Twenty minutes in, after a faithful opening of ‘The Circle’ best moments (bookended by widescreen-weeper ‘Rule the World’ and the playful if grating ‘Shine’), Williams checks in from a 100-foot height and tears into ‘Let Me Entertain You’ like a man possessed. He spits, swears and swerves through its raucous five minutes, completely at odds to the pedestrian airing of ‘Patience’ just moments earlier. Alongside the drug-addled ‘Feel’ and ubiquitous hit ‘Angels’, Williams has the 55,000-strong crowd hanging on every word. Cheeky Rob even gets away with taunting a shamed Manchester footballer during a cringe worthy rap about the city.
Post-Robbie, the full band return for ‘The Flood’, while a tub-thumping ‘SOS’ welcomes flaming pyrotechnics and the first stirrings of a 100-foot mechanical robot who goes by the name of ‘Om’. The impressive electro-stomp of ‘Kidz’ allows Mark Owen a taste of the limelight before Jason Orange indulges in a spot of rad teen breakdancing.
A quick brew and costume change later, the lads next appear onstage with a grand piano and acoustic guitars, revisiting boy-band era hits ‘A Million Love Songs’, ‘Back For Good’ (perhaps Barlow’s finest moment?) and the past-its-sell-by-date-cheese of ‘Pray’. Unexpectedly, Williams fires out ‘No Regrets’ (subject: painful fallout with Barlow) with his old pals nervously looking on. It’s business as usual with the guilty pleasure disco of ‘Relight My Fire’ and damp finale ‘Eight Letters’ before the chaps high-five crowd members as they leave the stage.
By curfew we’re possessed with high school tingles and barely compute the Pet Shop Boys, whose stylish yet aloof presence opened proceedings (if there’s a better pop show closer than ‘West End Girls’ we’d like to know about it). The two groups remain unlikely bedfellows until mid July, with other stadiums ready to be entertained. Between them, they perform everyman pop better than anyone, and don’t half make you feel safe and warm inside. And that’s precisely what nostalgia is designed for, right?
Words by Alistair Beech