So, yesterday around this time I was sitting here glowing after passing my PhD. Today, I sit here after having a tooth extracted, with my mouth as swollen as George Osborne’s bosom when he tells us with pride he is only four years behind his target for getting the country’s finances sorted. What a difference a day makes. Somebody on Facebook mentioned the Robbie Williams swing show on BBC1, which I had forgotten about, but with the wonders of modern technology I can rewind back to the beginning and watch while I treat myself to a meal of mashed potato and…mashed potato. It’s an exciting day.
Robbie Williams in his swing mode is both wonderful and remarkably infuriating for those of us who really love our swing music. Williams is a man who clearly adores this music. And I really mean adores. But then we have to wonder why the American accent – and whyc can’t he take it a bit more seriously at times. After a cheesy, but entertaining, rendition of Puttin on the Ritz we had a performance of Mr Bojangles that is ruined with silly jokes and comments, and just thrown away like Elvis singing Teddy Bear in his 70s concerts. Such moments are Williams at his most annoying, but also his most humble. It’s almost as if he just hasn’t got the self-confidence to think he can pull such a great song off, and so makes light of it. It’s a shame, as he can pull it off.
Such criticisms aside, this was a much better show (or half-show, the rest is on the DVD) than the one at the Albert Hall from a decade or so ago. Love Williams or hate him, he is in the best voice of his career and seemed to be having an absolute ball on stage. The same couldn’t be said for Lily Allen and Rufus Wainwright – neither of which have I ever seen the appeal in, and both looked wildly uncomfortable beside the man of the moment. Minnie the Moocher and I Wanna Be Like You were two highlights that suit Robbie Williams down to the ground – these are songs for people that can work a crowd and, despite them being given a tasteful but modern reworking, looked and sounded great and were delivered with panache. Also given a reworking was Supreme, Robbie Williams’ hit from…a while back. This was so good that one could wish that the new swing album was actually a big band reworking of a dozen of his hits of the past. Now that would have been really interesting.
The highlight of the evening, though, was Williams at his most serious, sitting on a chair delivering a ballad rendition of If I Only Had Brain. He has written that this version is based on the one found of Harry Connick Jr’s album 20, but it clearly means more to Williams. That lack of self-confidence shone through once again, but this time in the best way possible.
The performance of this song from The Wizard of Oz showed that he hasn’t changed that much since his first solo album Life Thru a Lens, the bonus track on which was a poem to a schoolteacher who had told him he’d make nothing of himself and never achieve his goals of being an entertainer. The poem was bitter and ended with a metaphorical “up yours” (and who can blame him for that), but the naked, subdued version of If I Only Had a Brain showed clearly that the words of the teacher still resonate and still get dwelled upon by Williams, despite the fact they were spoken to him nearly 25 years ago.