Date: March 9, 2019
Venue: Encore Theater (Las Vegas)
It is not too far in the distant past that Las Vegas concert residencies were associated with fading pop stars that were way past their commercial prime. More often than not, the artists that gravitated to Las Vegas concert residencies had enjoyed their fair share of the limelight in America’s musical mainstream. Many attribute the dramatic shift in perception for these shows to Celine Dion (with specific regard to her “A New Day” tour). The tour featured theatrical performances and imbibed the spirit of glitz and excess that Las Vegas is often characterized by. Since then, artists such as Elton John, Britney Spears, and Jennifer Lopez have carried on this tradition with immense success. The newest twist to the history of Las Vegas residencies is one that British pop superstar Robbie Williams just might be the catalyst for.
Robbie Williams is one of the more noteworthy symptoms of the US musical mainstream’s stubborn insularity from the global pop music landscape. Despite being the recipient of the second largest recording contract (valued at 80 million pounds) of all time, Robbie Williams (like many artists from the UK) has been overlooked by US terrestrial radio’s gatekeepers. These gatekeepers enjoy immense power to shape public opinion even today despite the rapid proliferation of alternate venues for music discovery besides terrestrial radio in the last two decades. As a result, Robbie Williams’ chart success in the US has been rather lackluster. None of his singles have entered the Billboard Top 40 singles chart. This is in stark contrast to his larger-than-life popularity overseas (literally everywhere besides the US). Furthermore, it has been almost two decades since he last performed live in the US.
Given this reality, it is rather interesting that Robbie Williams chose a Las Vegas concert residency route as opposed to a mini-tour covering the US’ key media hubs. The second element of surprise stems from the conscious choice of venue. Williams’ team has opted for the intimacy of the Encore Theater at Wynn Resorts. This is quite a shift for someone that in Europe is considered a stadium act. The final element of surprise is the overwhelming demand for tickets for these shows. The six shows scheduled for March 2019 have sold out. It would be interesting to see data highlighting the split between domestic and international demand for these tickets. Six more dates have been added between the months of June and July in Las Vegas.
On the evening of March 9, as concert attendees began to fill in the Encore theatre and indulge in friendly banter with each other, it became clear that one common theme linked many of the Americans in the audience. Most of these people either had foreign ties (by virtue of having lived or studied in Europe at some point in their lives) or had discovered Robbie Williams in the couple of years in the late 90s during which his promotion team tried to actively promote him on American television (to compensate for the lack of acceptance from American terrestrial radio gatekeepers).
My expectations of the concert were moderate – not because I expected to be underwhelmed but because I assumed (incorrectly of course!) that the intimacy of the Encore Theatre automatically meant that the show would be a mellow affair with Robbie Williams sitting on a stool performing mostly swing covers. While covers comprised a significant portion of the setlist, the concert was as far from a mellow affair as it could be. The concert opened with a call to the audience to sing the cheeky and irreverent “National Anthem of Robbie” with the lyrics being projected on to the curtains. The audience obliged with an overabundance of enthusiasm as they sang along hilarious lyrics such as
“Yes he went to rehab
Drugs and drinks took him low
God bless our Robbie
He can swing both ways
He is totally global
Except in the US of A”
This was followed by a video of Robbie Williams being broadcast on the curtains with the crowd cheering on deliriously. The curtains opened to a jaw-dropping stage setup. This was the first indication that Robbie Williams had decided to emulate elements of a stadium concert setup within the smaller confines of a theatre. In fact, the stage set design is one of the smartest uses of spaces I have seen in a very long time. The stage featured three ramps two of which were joined like a horseshoe and a center ramp. There were circular spaces between the ramps which is where the band performed. Robbie Williams made a rather dramatic entry via a suspended platform from the ceiling of the theatre.
The concert was an invigorating cocktail of Robbie’s unapologetic and ego-driven lack of political correctness, quirky humor with not even a hint of inhibition, his penchant for excesses, and the glitz and theatrics laced with a touch of class that have come to characterize Las Vegas as a music concert destination. For an artist that has not been in the American limelight for over 15 years, Robbie Williams embodied the spirit of Vegas with relative ease. In addition to the magnificent stage, Robbie’s entourage featured a troupe of drop dead gorgeous female dancers that performed eye-popping dance routines on songs such as “Rock DJ”, “Let Me Entertain You”, and “Swings both ways”. The euphoria factor of this concert surged ten-fold whenever they were on stage.
There were some defining elements of the concert worth highlighting. The first was a reverence for Las Vegas as demonstrated by the high-adrenaline performances. The second was an ode to Robbie Williams’ beginnings as the dreamy-eyed boy from Stoke-on-Trent (UK) as showcased on performances of songs such as “Mr Bojangles” and “Sweet Caroline” (a Neil Diamond cover performed with his father Pete Conway). In fact, “Sweet Caroline” was one of two songs that featured Robbie’s father – a rather unusual and heartwarming twist to a typical concert format. The final element was Robbie Williams’ commitment to audience engagement. For his performance of “Something Stupid”, he invited an Australian fan from the audience and serenaded her on a couch on a stage. It is fair to say that she took full advantage of the situation and probably got the most bang for her buck as she squeezed his buttocks before leaving the stage. He was aware that people had traveled from different parts of the world for this concert. He asked people to yell out and identify themselves as he did a roll call for Europeans, Australians, Kiwis, and finally Americans. To the Americans, he yelled “why don’t you tell your f**kin friends about me???? I don’t want to be infamous for NOT being famous in America”.
Musically, the highlights of the night were “Feel”, “Rock DJ”, “Swings both ways”, “Let me entertain you” and the penultimate track of the evening – “Angels” (which he introduced by saying “OK fine, I’ll perform that one hit”). The night ended with a cover of “My Way” (made popular by Frank Sinatra). The performance was a subtle nod to the artist that had come to define the early history of Las Vegas concert residencies. It was minimalist at best with only Robbie Williams and his primary songwriting partner Guy Chambers on the piano. At the end of the song, Robbie Williams exited by sinking in to the stage while Guy Chambers continued to play the piano as the curtains descended slowly. There was something symbolic about that moment as it focused the spotlight on the songwriting partnership that sowed the seeds for Robbie Williams’ monumental rise to stardom. Prior to this musical alliance, the success of Robbie Williams was far from a foregone conclusion.
One cannot doubt the larger than life ambition of Robbie Williams in his creative vision for this show. He undoubtedly tried to incorporate a lot but in doing so, he may have inadvertently eschewed the primary aspect of his career – his own hits. With a musical legacy spanning over 11 albums as a solo artist (and fifteen albums including the ones with Take That), he was never going to be in a position to do justice to all of it. That being said, he may have gone too far the other way with a covers-heavy setlist. In my humble opinion, that might have been a miscalculation in the context of an artist trying to reacquaint himself with American audiences. His legacy has been largely built off his own hits as opposed to those of others. This might be my only criticism (albeit a rather significant one) of the concert.
The concert is a reminder that America’s insulation from the European musical mainstream since the mid-90s is America’s loss. It is also a reminder that pop music can be fun, classy, and entertaining without being sonically hollow. It is my sincere hope that Robbie Williams’ return to the American stage forces a re-evaluation of gatekeepers in the American musical mainstream that have largely failed in their endeavor to uphold one of the fundamental tenets of responsible media – diversity.
On the other hand, Robbie Williams may have found the city that embodies his spirit and both him and his concert audience are better off for it. I hope that this performance not only ushers in a new era for Robbie Williams’ relationship with America but also for the many talented popstars from across the Atlantic that have been relegated to relative obscurity in America.
STAR RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars
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