The last visit Robbie Williams made to the UAE before his concert on Saturday night has gone down in folklore.
In April 2006 the then-superstar performed to more than 16,000 people at Dubai’s former Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. Years before Yas Island even existed, this was biggest, and most successful pop concert the region had ever seen. A once-in-a-lifetime gig for long-term residents, it united folk, whether they were fans or not. Many were, of course – Robbie arrived back then off the back of seven hit albums in less than a decade.
As he took to the du Arena stage almost exactly nine years later, much has changed for Robbie.
That mammoth Close Encounters tour turned out to be his last for seven years. Washed-up, he rejoined Take That for a short (doubtless lucrative) spell, before striking out in a slightly sad, cabaret-style direction. He was 32 then, and 41 today.
It’s easy to describe a Robbie Williams gig with only words beginning with the letter P – Saturday’s show was a preposterous pastiche, a pantomime of polished pop. Williams himself a pathologically possessed prizefighter.
Ask anyone about Williams, and one of the first words likely to come up is "ego". Reports that he'd checked that in back at the clinic some years ago didn't prove entirely accurate. There were buckets of narcissism on display – but then anyone would need a fair portion of self-love to think they could don a jumpsuit and pull off Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the most bizarre moments in a really quite bizarre show.
This was the Let Me Entertain You tour, and it seems that few stops weren't pulled out – or depths of parody that were not probed (more p-words) – to get the designated audience reaction. Namely, Robbie Love.
Those stops included a wardrobe in such bad taste that I refuse to believe he was serious. The devil horns Williams wore for the opener – you guessed it, Let Me Entertain You – were thankfully ditched by the opening chords of Rock DJ, but the black waistcoat (no shirt), chains and glaring tattoos were later accompanied by what we can only describe as a skirt. There was also a shiny, silver thing he donned for the questionable space-reggae of Tripping (reminder Robbie – you are not David Bowie).
Anyone who questions the cabaret comparison need only consider the setlist, which included at least 10 covers – from Cab Calloway to Led Zeppelin to Lorde. A few covers are cool, Robbie, and I got what you were doing with the whole Rat Pack spectacular, tongue-in-cheek Swing When You're Winning thing – but just fleshing out the middle of your set with songs by people more famous than you? Well, isn't that just kind of ... sad?
For the record, Williams does a far better George Michael (Freedom 90) than he does Robert Plant (Whole Lotta Love) or Bono (I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For).
Between all this knowing tomfoolery, much time was set aside for – yes – Robbie Love. We’re talking extended a cappella breakdowns. We’re talking posturing – Robbie flexing his muscles and gurning at the rows of adoring, middle-aged women. We’re talking long, egocentric introductions (“my name is Robbie Peter Williams, and I was born on February 13 1974” he told us, at least twice). He also told us, several times and seemingly with surprise, that it was hot.
As a result, mid-set Williams stripped off his white gloves and tails and necked a quick coffee. “I’m going to have an espresso,” he quipped, “because I like espresso” – a knowing wink to his former coffee addiction that reportedly saw him drinking 36 double espressos a day.
Soon after, I blinked when William's dad was suddenly shuffled out – wearing a bow tie and tux – to duet on Better Man. Presumably Peter the former publican is being trotted round the world with his son, all for this nightly indulgence.
It would be easy to be won over by the theatrics, and many were. The eight-piece band – plus four feisty backing singers/dancers – were, of course, phenomenal musicians, and the visuals and production were of a high calibre. The title of the tour rang true – this was pure theatre, entertainment through and through.
After closing the main set with Feel and Millennium, the evening ended, inevitably, with Angels, a song so iconic it delayed most people from splitting for the taxi queue. Proving he's still got the chords, Williams rounded off daringly with an a cappella verse of She's the One, before returning to a solo Angels.
It wasn’t quite Glastonbury in 1998, but Williams tugged tirelessly at all the appropriate heartstrings.