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Somewhere in between doling out the frozen-smile teen pop of Take That and snorting up the drugs ‘n’ decadence lifestyle with the Brothers Gallagher, Brit boy wonder Robbie Williams tumbled into the buzz jetstream, dog-paddled across the big briney, and wound up here, tonight, at the 9:30 Club. The cocky 25-year-old has yet to take the stagein fact, he’s yet to take most of Americabut you can smell the charmed sonofabitch already: like a strong, cool breeze scented with fresh money and spilled Moët & Chandon. Some say he looks like a Tiger Beat dreamboat; I say he looks like an emaciated James Coco. No matter: Williams already has the tingly winds of future stardom swirling around his Clooney hairdo, and there’s really only one place to go from here.
Ladies and gentleman, all hail the Next Big Thing.
Or, at the very least, the next Terence Trent D’Arby.
Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and People have recently devoted pages of praise to Williams, yet radio stations and stateside MTV have unveiled but a whisper of his U.S. debut, The Ego Has Landed. Even 9:30 Club impresario Seth Hurwitz, the proverbial man behind the curtain, peeked from the shadows and contributed a blurb to the club’s ad for Williams’ D.C. show: “Someday, you will wish you had seen this.” Talk about high praise. Still, with a mess of publicity-driven accolades littering the club floor and giddy anticipation snowballing in from the U.K., one very important question remains: Who in the hell is this guy?
And with that basic query echoing in the girdered heights of D.C.’s popular concert venue, the lights dim to darkness and the Man Who Would Be the New King of Pop waits for John Williams’ booming, brassy Star Wars themehow’s that for cojones?to properly signal his entrance….
Hold on, hold on: Don’t you think Williams should have to wait at least a few minutes before his shot at world domination? After all, he hasn’t been suffering that long.
In 1995, after getting bounced from Take ThatBritain’s version of the Backstreet Boysfor excessive partying, reported drug use, and the general grocery list of bad-boy behavior, Williams went underground and, in no particular order, got fat, got drunk, and got laid by a host of women willing to spill their stories to the voracious London tabloids. The troubled rock star also spent a good deal of time carousing with Oasis’ Noel and Liam Gallagher, bad influences both personally and musically.
While he hopped from club to club and gossip column to gossip column, Williams also found time to record a solo album1997’s Life Thru a Lensthat immediately nosedived into the commercial crapper. Cue the miracle machine: Through limited radio spins, strong word of mouth, and a candid frankness with music journalists who just couldn’t get enough of the charming punk, Williams became an overnight(s) success. The Ego Has Landed, which hit our store shelves just a week ago, is a compilation of tracks from Life Thru a Lens and 1998’s I’ve Been Expecting You, both of which went multiplatinum (and counting) in the U.K. and spawned myriad Top 10 hits. His performance at the 1998 Glastonbury Festival drew record crowds, and, in the same year, MTV Europe named him Best Male Artist. Like that, he was Prince Charming. Over there, that is.
The Ego Has Landed is way overtextured, and Williams’ lyrics are lightweight at their most serious, but the 14-track album is not without its sugary delights: His signature song, “Let Me Entertain You,” features Williams wailing like Geddy Lee-as-carnival-barker over breakneck drums, sprinting piano, grungy guitar, funky horns, and some techno bleats (pretty much everything but a kazoo). “Old Before I Die” is a sing-along-sweet anthem, a youngun’s bravado when gazing into the golden years (“I hope I’m old before I die/I hope I live to see the day the Pope gets high”). And “She’s the One” is “Maybe I’m Amazed” for the ’90s. For the most part, though, Williams cops his style and attitude from Oasis (albeit light Oasis), which is kinda pathetic, given that the Gallaghers borrow exclusively from the Beatles. Sure, Williams will occasionally venture off into the lush world of Paul Buckmaster-era Elton John, but if it doesn’t sound like an outtake from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, the man wants no part of it.
So there you have it: Williams, musically limited even by his own admission, has mastered the art of creating pure, nonsensical pop with enough jagged edges to keep you from shielding your purchase from view at Tower Records. He’s mastered the art of the arrogant-while-self-deprecating sound bite. But that still doesn’t warrant such media bliss, does it?
You gotta be kidding me: Bounding onstage with a shovel and a stretched Stan Laurel grin, Williams weaves through a frenetic, razzle-dazzle light show and greets the crowd with this: “I just got the reports back from the lab: Rock and roll as much as possible!” And the 9:30 Clubpacked 2-to-1 with coedsgoes absolutely apeshit. The sold-out crowd crows even louder when Williams, leading his six-piece band through its hellzapoppin’ show opener, “Let Me Entertain You,” strums the garden tool with Townshend-like vigor and struts as Elvis, Mick, and a rubber-legged soccer hooligan all in one.
Within a flurry of loud, blinding seconds, Williams’ choice of preshow soundtrackSammy Davis Jr.’s “Mr. Bojangles,” Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual,” Sinatra’s “That’s Life”makes perfect sense. A performer hasn’t played to the crowd this much since Dino at the Sands.
“This is what I growed up to do,” Williams says, reaching into the audience, throwing trinkets into the audience, blowing kisses into the audience. “To come to America and sing for you. I feel like a real pop star tonight.” When that notice of arrival doesn’t garner the proper shrieks of approval, Williams tries this: “Any Americans here tonight?” Screams. “Anybody from abroad?” Screams! (At least that explains the crammed-til-bursting crowd.)
Almost every one of his songs includes a D.C. reference; almost every song contains a crowd-pleasing sample: the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Eminem’s “My Name Is…” Sure, it’s a cheap and simple brand of cheerleading, but a method downright impossible to refuse when done by a complete fool like Williams (who, at his most winning, reveals that a former Take That bandmate, the one who sacked little Robbie, is currently being savaged by the back-home press for having “a coke problem.” “Is that fucking brilliant or what?” Williams laughs. “Three years too late for that guy. I already had one of those. Hell, he just didn’t have a good dealer, that’s all”).
After a quick hour onstage, a sweat-drenched RW (he likes to be called that) encores with his first U.S. single, “Millennium”the synthesized string samples plucked from John Barry’s score for You Only Live Twice. Then, as a sweet slap to the boys of Oasiswho have recently taken to ripping on Williams (who quickly surpassed their popularity overseas)he ends the evening with Blur’s “Song 2.” (To say the least, Oasis and Blur are not fond of each other.) Nothing like a chorus of “woo-hoos”and a quick, clever stab at his former matesto finish things off.
Even if Williamswho bids adieu to fans new and old with a solemn “May the Force be with you. Always”doesn’t conquer the other half of the globe, well, there is one more place to go from here.
Ladies and gentleman, all hail the next great Vegas showman. CP