Take That and Robbie Williams start landmark tour

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Take That and Robbie Williams made pop history as they kicked off the biggest tour the UK and Ireland have seen with a euphoric gig in Sunderland.

It was the first of 29 stadium gigs, with 1.8 million tickets sold, smashing the record the group set in 2009.

The quintet gave fans at the Stadium of Light a trip back to their original glory days with classic hits like Pray, Relight My Fire and Never Forget.

Williams, who last toured with the band in 1995, also performed solo material.

The tour marks the culmination of the group's long-awaited and lucrative reunion.

And the return was greeted rapturously by the 54,000-strong crowd in Sunderland.

"It was absolutely amazing - everything we hoped for and more," said Dianne Roberson, 52, from Derby.

"Robbie just took his place. It was great to see him back but he didn't overshadow everybody else."

Williams was absent for the first five songs as his bandmates performed tracks like Greatest Day and Rule the World, which were recorded before he rejoined the band.

As they departed, Williams landed on stage to deliver a string of hits that represented his supremacy over his old bandmates in the late 1990s and 2000s, such as Angels, Rock DJ and Let Me Entertain You.

He also proved that he is still the most compelling showman among them, with the hyperactive dance moves and an intense party presence that became so familiar in the days when he was the undisputed king of British pop.

That solo success has faded somewhat. Meanwhile, his bandmates are trying to maintain the momentum of their comeback. It made sense that they should rejoin forces.

So, after the typically rousing Angels, the five reunited on a platform high above the stage for their first song together, The Flood.

It was the first in a sequence of numbers from their latest album Progress, which was written and recorded as a five-piece.

Image caption,
The group have been rehearsing at an air base in Bedfordshire

Dancers suspended on wires were drenched by a waterfall as they sang, before Williams dived in slow motion onto the stage. The other four, less acrobatically, were lowered in lifts.

Another four tracks from Progress followed, each with finely honed dance routines.

They included a battle on a giant chess board where all the pieces had come to life. The battle was decided by a breakdancing contest between Jason Orange and Howard Donald, as Williams rapped from a high umpire's chair.

Physical spectacles and special effects are virtually obligatory in any major pop concert, and Take That's visual vignettes veered from the fantastical to the futuristic.

The connections were often hard to fathom. There were, at various times, druids with pots of incense, a giant, pipe-smoking cloth caterpillar, a lone ballerina and masked dancers swinging burning lanterns.

The centrepiece of the stage set was a 40-foot animatronic figure that slowly made its way from crouching to standing amid the crowd, presumably representing the progress of man and the band.

Classic hits

The inter-band banter felt almost as rehearsed as the dance routines.

"Fifteen years ago, Robbie left the band," Orange said at one point.

"Sacked, not left," Williams retorted in mock accusation.

The final quarter of the show was what the fans had really come to see - the five members singing the classic hits.

That segment started with Gary Barlow sitting at the piano, surrounded by his bandmates, just like the good old days.

They avoided dwelling too long on the past by rattling through some of the standards in a medley - Million Love Songs, Babe, Everything Changes and Back For Good.

Then there were full versions of Never Forget, which had 54,000 pairs of hands in the air, a fittingly feelgood Light My Fire, and Pray, including the original dance routine.

The maturing man band may be a bit less supple on the dancefloor than the well-oiled boy band of yore, but the passage of time cannot be held against them.

Otherwise, they have still got the charisma and tunes, as well as the ability to sweep their long-term fans along on an escapist nostalgia trip.

One concert-goer, Nicki Darby, 31, from Hartlepool, put the group's popularity down to the fact that Take That had been there at key moments in their fans' lives.

"They hold childhood memories," she said.

"I've got memories of growing up, living my life and getting into my 30s with them. They've been with me the whole time."

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