One of the greatest pop groups of all time performing a selection of classic tunes at one of the grandest venues in London. Pretty good for a Thursday night out.
It’s a little bit strange being a Take That fan in 2019. The band are soon to set off on what they’re calling their 30th anniversary tour, which feels like something of a stretch, when their first single was released in July 1991. It’s hard not to feel as though this is a band preparing to split on stealth mode – getting the anniversary greatest hits celebration out of the way early so they can move on to concentrate on solo pursuits. They may protest to the contrary, but I’ve been here before: I was there in 1995, at a Take That gig in which they proclaimed they’d never split up, four months before they did just that.
If that turns out to be true I’m consoling myself with the hope that Mark Owen will soon return to his solo career (which, if I’m being honest, I might love even more than I love the boys as a group.) But it also means that I need to take every opportunity to see the tunesome three before the possible end arises. And so, despite being in the middle of a self-enforced gigging break for the sake of my health, I couldn’t resist getting myself a ticket for this Teenage Cancer Trust gig when they released extra tickets two weeks ago.
So off I strode to South Kensington on this breezy spring evening. I got to the Royal Albert Hall around seven and found myself eavesdropping on conversations in a series of queues. First up was the queue to get into the building itself, in which I overhead the group of people behind me bemoaning the ridiculousness of the ID checks in force that evening, to which I was very tempted to contribute a hearty “hell yes”. Then it was the queue for the ladies, in which I learnt that the scheduled support act James Arthur had dropped out at the last minute, amongst much speculation as to who might take his place. Finally, in the bar queue, I was impressed by the two ladies in front of me, who instructed the bartender decant an entire bottle of Chardonnay into two pint glasses. (I myself just opted for a large Merlot, and shuddered at the £11 charge – more than I’d usually pay for a whole bottle! – but when in RAH, do as RAH does, I guess.)
I found my seat, which turned out to be right in the middle front of the top circle, and while the view was impressive it was a slightly vertiginous position to find myself in. The last minute replacement for James Arthur turned out to be a young singer/songwriter names Aeris Roves, who found himself on the RAH stage literally 45 minutes after getting the call to be there. He strummed four acoustic numbers for us, and while I’m not usually a huge fan of blokes with acoustic guitars, Aeris won me over with his shyly charming songs full of thoughtful lyrics and zestful rap interludes. One to watch for sure.
Before Take That came on, the Who’s Roger Daltrey made a small speech about the importance of the Teenage Cancer Trust, and brought on a group of teenagers who had benefited from the work of the charity. We were instructed to put our phone lights on and hold them up so that they could take epic selfies from the stage. I will admit to finding that experience quite moving, to be able to take part in giving that tiny moment of joy to these young people who have been through so much.
And then it was time for the main event. Being used to the elaborate arena stage settings of previous Take That tours, it was a little strange to see them just stroll on stage with little fanfare apart from the screams of the five thousand in attendance. They started as they meant to carry on: with an utter pop classic, “Shine”. With only two exceptions (the tedious but crowd pleasing “Greatest Day” and the bizarrely skiffle-tinged recent single “Out Of Our Heads”), this was a night of timeless, perfect pop from start to finish.
“Shine” is of course an utterly storming opener: with its combination of driving piano chords, hugely infectious tune and Mark’s exuberant lead vocal, it’s quite possibly the most uplifting song ever recorded, and the crowd are up on their feet and dancing from its first note. Well, apart from my section of the circle, and as I was at the front I refrained from leaping up to dance at first, not wanting to obscure the view of anyone behind me. However, once “Greatest Day” was out of the way, the unmistakable disco refrain of “Relight My Fire” filled the air and propelled me up from my seat to dance. Luckily, so did everyone else around me at this precise moment, so there was no need to worry about view-blocking complaints.
And “Relight” was incredible, not just for the vibrant thrill of the song itself, but for the moment halfway through when the real-life and actual Lulu joined them on stage to sing her part. The boys knelt down to worship before her and she sang with as much power and gusto as on the original record. The crowd, meanwhile, have launched into such frenzied screaming it’s quite possible a few lungs were burst, or indeed eardrums. But this is the joy of a Take That concert: here we can scream just as we did when we were 13, or 16, or indeed 20, which was my age when I first saw the boys live. One of the great things about going to a Take That gig in this decade is being in a crowd full women. At gigs by my usual indie faves, I’m often surrounded by a sea of testosterone: bald heads and beer bellies, and it’s not always the most welcoming atmosphere when you’re a lady gigging solo. At a TT show, it’s such a relief to know that I’m not going to be pestered, groped or harassed by other members of the crowd.
But on the topic of screams, there was one song that ignited the crowd into outright raptures of delirious mania, and it was, of course, “Pray”, which came up two songs later after a gorgeous, swayalong “Patience”. I don’t think words can adequately express how much I love “Pray” and its dance routine. It was watching a performance of this song in Australia in 1994, by the then five boys, that made me a fan in the first place, and it makes me so happy that now, almost 25 years later, I can still go and see them perform it.
And that dance routine! It was clearly choreographed by some kind of demented genius, who thought “hmmm, this song’s called “Pray”, so let’s take as many religious poses as we can think of and make them sexy”. It shouldn’t work: some of the moves are pretty damn strange (assume the cross pose and then wave your arms about with one leg aloft! put your hands together to pray and then wrap them round your face several times!), but when performed in combination with that utterly glorious tune, I can scarcely think of anything in this world that brings me more joy. And I’m clearly not the only one, for the Royal Albert Hall was full of the screams of utter delight with every twirl and thrust. This song should surely be available on the NHS as a cure for glumness.
And “Pray” also highlights one of the best things about the trimmed down TT line-up, which is that they are now a trio of utterly distinct voices, and each voice can be clearly heard in the mix. In “Pray”‘s chorus, for example, it was easy to make out Mark’s lower harmonies and Howard’s high ones against Gary’s main melodic line. The three voices complement each other perfectly, and each is brilliant in its own way: Gary’s technical, note-perfect competence; Howard’s soft, rich, sandy tones; and Mark, well, I have to come right out here and say that I am completely and hopelessly in love with Mark Owen and I think his voice is astounding. It’s like a cross between the voice of a tiny child and an age-old wise guru, somehow simultaneously full of the melancholy of eons and the glee of youth, and have I mentioned I’m desperate for a new solo album and tour from Mark to happen very very soon?
All the boys looked to be in positively celestial spirits and on the form of their lives. Sharp suited and agile, their energy was seemingly boundless (though Howard did have to ask for a breather after the bouncing dance routine accompanying “Out Of Our Heads”). I was too far away to make out much of their appearances on the night, apart from noting Mark’s dapper waistcoat and long flowing locks, but photos I saw later revealed that he also still has the interesting ‘tache arrangement he’s been sporting of late, while Howard has abandoned the rugged stubble for a clean-shaven appearance reminiscent of his early 90s look.
Given my confessed utter adoration of Mark, many of this night’s highlights for me were when he took a turn on lead vocals. Sadly, apart from “Shine”, there were no songs where he took sole lead – whither “Babe” and “Hold Up A Light”, lads? But his opening few lines of “Everything Changes” were stunning, and this led into a glorious medley of “It Only Takes A Minute” and “Could It Be Magic” complete with its own classic dance routine. Another heart-melting highlight came next with the rarely performed “Love Ain’t Here Anymore”, when Mark and Howard both took turns on the second verse. Take That are at their best when they share the vocals like this, making full use of the three wonderful voices on offer.
We remained in ballad territory after this with “Back For Good” which is, of course, only one of the greatest pop songs of all time. Sitting back down in my seat to take it all in, I couldn’t help thinking of my first TT gig, way back in 1995 and on the other side of the world. It was during this song that they took the time out to proclaim they weren’t splitting up, despite being a few months away from doing just that. And while I may be wrong in my suspicion that they plan to call it a day after this year’s tour, it’s clearly going to be a long while before they return to the stage together.
Then came a highly energetic rendition of “Out Of Our Heads”, which was actually pretty enjoyable. My main gripe with it is that of the three new songs that came with the hits collection “Odyssey”, it’s by far the weakest – I would much rather have heard the stirring “Everlasting”, a moving ode to the band’s history which, on reflection, sounds just as much like a goodbye to the fans as “Never Forget” did in the aftermath of their 1996 split.
We were on the home stretch now, and quite frankly, I defy any band to come up with a five-song run to rival this one. “These Days” was a slice of shiny pop perfection, and “The Flood” again made stellar use of the boys’ voices, giving both Mark and Howard turns on lead to take on Robbie’s parts. The boys then sent the RAH into a demented euphoric rave with “Cry” before lulling us with the gently epic sway of “Rule The World”, in which we once again took out our phone lights and lit up the Hall with a galaxy of stars.
And finally, inevitably, it was “Never Forget”. I can think of no other song that can unite a thousands-strong crowd into one big family quite so well as this one does: every one of us perfectly in sync with the arms-aloft-then-clap chorus, because we’ve done it so many times before. The warmth that this song brings to the room is palpable, full of memories and love for these wonderful boys, however many of them have chosen to turn up over the years.
I left the RAH feeling as I always do after a Take That gig: full of a simple, pure happiness. Feeling that the world’s not such a bad place and there’s good things to be done in it. But one thought was even higher on my mind as I made my way home: This absolutely CANNOT be my last Take That gig. Even if they’re not splitting, there’s no knowing how many years ’til they’ll tour again after 2019. So it’ll be off to the O2 with me in May, health permitting, and with extreme apologies to my credit card. But one thing’s for sure: Take That are absolutely, wholeheartedly worth it.