As a lifelong Queen tragic, I’ve long been fascinated by the popular press’s desire, bordering on desperation, to hoist Robbie Williams into the throne left vacant by Freddie Mercury’s untimely death — as pop music’s Last Great Showman. There are all kinds of things wrong with this — for a start, Mercury, unlike Williams, was a highly accomplished player whose masterfully flamboyant stage persona obscured rather than substituted for unique abilities as both a craftsman and interpreter of imperishably popular songs — but Williams himself has routinely flirted with the idea that filling Mercury’s (ballet) shoes is his destiny.
In fact, Williams got his wish, if only for an all-too fleeting moment, back in 2001 when he collaborated with still active Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor on a cover of We Are the Champions for the classic rock-mining soundtrack of A Knight’s Tale. Although the union was brief, Williams has since cited Mercury as an inspiration so much that it led one waggish rock critic to imagine that the first thing Williams did every morning was rue the fact he still hadn’t magically transformed into Freddie Mercury during the night.
So here Williams is, in 2015, on a worldwide tour called Let Me Entertain You — the title, incidentally, of not only one of Williams’ biggest hits, but the Mercury-penned sixth track on Queen’s 1978 album Jazz — staking his royal credentials once more with an unabashed hits package after last year’s swing-oriented tour. The set, which looks too slickly predictable to change much between the first show in Perth and the last in Sydney, kicks off with this song, Williams appearing in Mephistophelean fashion through a trapdoor amidst a pall of smoke.
In black bondage pants, singlet and frock coat, Williams looks muscular, younger than his 41 years. He brandishes a cane that — yep, you guessed it — is rapidly converted into a Freddie Mercury-style sawn-off microphone stand. His introduction to the Adelaide crowd is typically bold, verging on the brattish: “My name is Robbie fucking Williams, this is my band and, for the next two hours, your arse is mine!”
A string of familiar hits, most of them penned by Williams’ longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, follows with little in the way of pauses between songs: Rock DJ, Come Undone, Me and My Monkey. An early, partial cover of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For serves as a reminder that Queen wasn’t the only outstanding stadium rock act of the ’80s Williams looked to in search of a stagecraft of his own.
He’s in fine voice throughout, shiny-eyed and clearly enjoying himself. His 12-piece band is expectedly polished, and it’s a pleasure to see them, presumably with Williams’ blessing, stretch out both musically and physically, the dancers prowling around the edges of the horseshoe-shaped thrust stage, the backing vocalists coming to the fore on a variety of songs.
There is a bit of an “everything and the kitchen sink vibe” to all of this — support act Lawson are brought back onto the stage for a stripped-down version of Take That’s Back for Good and other songs; Williams summons his tuxedo-wearing father, Pete, for Better Man; three gigantic mirror ball busts of Williams emerge hubristically from the stage; snatches of We Will Rock You, I Love Rock and Roll and Lorde’s Royals come and go, Williams having changed into a black kilt and sneakers — but it is, for the most, an enjoyably shameless display of excess. Mercury would no doubt have approved.
Which brings me to the evening’s first encore. It is, of course, Bohemian Rhapsody, performed just as Queen used to do, the massed vocal harmonies from the original recording inserted into the live mix rather than recreated onstage. Williams’ vocal is respectable but, lacking Mercury’s astonishing four-octave range, the song comes off a little like glorified karaoke, this sense enhanced by the worryingly numerous teleprompts that litter the stage, and also what is to come: the final encore — landing after Williams’ own signature song Angels — Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Again, Williams gets away with it because he knows how to sell a song, even one that is really technically beyond him, but it feels like one indulgence too many, the great entertainer suddenly turned bore by his insistence on living out some private fantasy at the expense of the rest of us.
Make no mistake — Williams in concert is superlative theatre, and the enduring hits his name carries constitute a master class in pop songcraft — but it’s hard to escape the feeling that it all would be much more fun to watch if Williams didn’t look like a man trying so hard to prove something. Robbie, as his fans know him, is no Freddie (or Frank for that matter), a fact that his flair for performance, more or less unmatched by anyone else of his generation, would more than make up for if only he wouldn’t persist in reminding us of what we’re not quite getting.