Birmingham NEC

The opening night of [a]Robbie[/a]'s sell-out [b]UK[/b] megatour - reviewed first on [b]nme.com[/b]...

Birmingham NEC

How much bigger can [a]Robbie Williams[/a] get? We're not talking about his waistline, which fluctuates more than Oprah Winfrey's. Or his bum, which is considerably larger and hairer than the pert airbrushed version you see on the cover of Vogue. No, we're talking about the scale of Robbie's superstardom, which clearly he's at the pinnacle of - having sold out 21 dates across five cities.



After this, the only way for him to go may well be down - but there's no trace of worry when Williams opens the tour tonight at Birmingham's NEC. He informs the crowd - in an announcement identical to that at 1998's Glastonbury Festival - that "I'm shitting myself", but, from the moment he strides onstage to perform inevitable opener 'Let Me Entertain You', the feeling is one of top-of-the-world confidence from a man who's on record as saying his third album is his best.



Rob may well be right, since new songs like 'Knutsford City Limits' and 'A Better Man' sound great when given a proper live airing, but tonight there's a sense that he's going to be haunted by 'Angels' 'til the day he shuffles off and becomes one himself. Canny showman that he is, the Robster still has enough sense to save it for the encore.



As showmen go, Williams is a master who stages his own musical comedy with self-effacing aplomb. In the rap to Kylie duet 'Kids' he describes himself as an "honorary Sean Connery", but when he tries on suaveness for size, it feels like a piss-take. He's more like an honorary Benny Hill or Max Wall or even Tucker Jenkins - a cheeky chappy class clown who uses farce to win an audience's affection. He's rude like Benny, a bit of a buffoon like Wall, and, like Tucker, he's the loveable bad boy next door. And for all of these reasons tonight, it's difficult not to like him.



Kylie fans are praying she'll make a guest appearance at some point on the tour, but it gradually becomes clear that tonight will not be the night. She only appears pre-recorded on the video screen - like Dusty on the Pet Shop Boys tour, and at least they had a decent excuse. No worries, though: a Robbie show doesn't need special guests, just that special rapport he has with the fans.



He doesn't need all this new show's changing scenery and fireworks, either, and the cover version of 'My Way' that's meant to be ironic is really just pointlessly obvious. So, somewhat strangely, is a thrash metal guitar solo that trashes the sublime melody of 'Millennium'.



But Rob's mistakes only make him human, and it's Rob's mistakes that have plunged him deep into the heart of Britain's consciousness. And while - contrary to his own hype - it's still slightly too early to label him a great artist, he's a great entertainer, and he'll be deep in hearts for some time to come. Just as long as he doesn't keep ripping them out and throwing them at supermodels...

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