Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

A close-up encounter of a big gig

Robbie Williams' extravagant tour, which stopped off at Dublin earlier this summer, is entering its final leg. Wil Marlow gets a flavour of how it's all been going

For a man who once said he hated touring, Robbie Williams is doing plenty. His 2006 world tour began in April with dates in South Africa and the UAE, then a shoehorned appearance on ITV's Soccer Aid before heading back out on the road. Now, after trekking around Europe for much of the summer, Robbie Williams is back in Britain. On September 1 he played the first of nine sold-out gigs in Glasgow, Leeds and Milton Keynes, to more than 500,000 people. Robbie (32), might not ever top the record-breaking three nights he played at Knebworth back in 2003, but he's certainly having a go at it. The 2006 Close Encounters tour is undoubtedly his biggest yet. The interestingly-named Wob Roberts, the singer's tour manager since he launched his solo career, says: "It's a long way from that first gig [in 1997] at Norwich UEA." Back in early August, at Cologne in the middle of the German leg of the Close Encounters tour, Wob and the rest of the 215-strong entourage were dealing with rain. Lots of it. And with each show being open-air, it could have been a big problem. But Wob, an easy-going bloke with a genial sense of humour, takes the downpour in his stride. "The whole stage is designed with water in mind," he says. "We've got an industrial non-stick floor which we did a few experiments on. I mean, if it really rains hard, it can get a bit dodgy out there, but for most parts it's fine. "What we do is set up the stage so it looks as good as possible, and then waterproof the bits that we have to. The musicians are waterproof anyway, so they're all right," he laughs. As you may have guessed, the Close Encounters tour has an alien theme. The stage set is designed to look like a spaceship by tour producer Lee Lodge, along with set designer and architect Ray Winkler, who has worked with The Rolling Stones and Tina Turner. "We wanted the stage to look like a huge alien contraption that had landed in the middle of the stadium," says Ray. "It stems from Robbie's obsession with aliens and all things extra-terrestrial." The show starts with the musical notes from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, with Robbie bursting on stage to hit single Radio. But before that can happen an awful lot of work has to go into erecting the set, as well as making sure that everything goes without a hitch during the show. "It takes 24 hours to set the whole thing up, do the show and then take it down again," says Wob. "As soon as the show's done, as the punters are leaving, we're starting. And the main production will be out by four in the morning, that's 31 trucks. "The black bits at the back, the steel system, we have two of those that leapfrog throughout the tour, as they take another 14 or 15 hours to take out. The logistics of this are unbelievable." Robbie himself is a strong presence among the tour crew, turning up a good two hours before showtime to get himself psyched up. "He's got his own routine that he goes through before he goes on stage," says Wob. Only Robbie and the walls of his dressing room know what that routine is. But the dressing room itself is an important part of making Robbie feel comfortable and relaxed before he heads out on stage. "We have a team of two guys who sort the dressing rooms," Wob explains. "We try and duplicate their room in every venue, so the dressing room is like a sanctuary for Rob and the band. "They know that before they go and do their job, they've got their own calm area where they don't have to worry about the fact that the chair is a bit rickety or they can't stand the smell of the candles they've picked." Not that Robbie hides in his dressing room. Half an hour before the Cologne show he's out in the catering area with a bunch of friends from Stoke. It's relaxed backstage, but security is tight. You need at least three wristbands to get anywhere near where Robbie might be. Not that this stops fans from trying. "One of the best ones is when they actually faint and get pulled over the barrier," Wob laughs. "Then once they're in with the medics, they make a run for the dressing rooms or whatever. Believe me, it's happened." The two-hour show flies by and 75,000 people go home happy and hoarse. It's a long way from that first gig in Norwich. "What's changed since the early days is the size," Wob says. "A lot of the band and crew are original. Rob's very much the same. "He just gets out there and enjoys it." Robbie Williams' new single Rudebox is out this week. Robbie On The Road and Robbie Williams Live: A Close Encounter are on Sky One tomorrow night.

For a man who once said he hated touring, Robbie Williams is doing plenty. His 2006 world tour began in April with dates in South Africa and the UAE, then a shoehorned appearance on ITV's Soccer Aid before heading back out on the road.

Now, after trekking around Europe for much of the summer, Robbie Williams is back in Britain.

On September 1 he played the first of nine sold-out gigs in Glasgow, Leeds and Milton Keynes, to more than 500,000 people.

Robbie (32), might not ever top the record-breaking three nights he played at Knebworth back in 2003, but he's certainly having a go at it.

The 2006 Close Encounters tour is undoubtedly his biggest yet.

The interestingly-named Wob Roberts, the singer's tour manager since he launched his solo career, says: "It's a long way from that first gig [in 1997] at Norwich UEA."

Back in early August, at Cologne in the middle of the German leg of the Close Encounters tour, Wob and the rest of the 215-strong entourage were dealing with rain. Lots of it. And with each show being open-air, it could have been a big problem.

But Wob, an easy-going bloke with a genial sense of humour, takes the downpour in his stride.

"The whole stage is designed with water in mind," he says. "We've got an industrial non-stick floor which we did a few experiments on. I mean, if it really rains hard, it can get a bit dodgy out there, but for most parts it's fine.

"What we do is set up the stage so it looks as good as possible, and then waterproof the bits that we have to. The musicians are waterproof anyway, so they're all right," he laughs.

As you may have guessed, the Close Encounters tour has an alien theme. The stage set is designed to look like a spaceship by tour producer Lee Lodge, along with set designer and architect Ray Winkler, who has worked with The Rolling Stones and Tina Turner.

"We wanted the stage to look like a huge alien contraption that had landed in the middle of the stadium," says Ray. "It stems from Robbie's obsession with aliens and all things extra-terrestrial."

The show starts with the musical notes from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, with Robbie bursting on stage to hit single Radio.

But before that can happen an awful lot of work has to go into erecting the set, as well as making sure that everything goes without a hitch during the show.

"It takes 24 hours to set the whole thing up, do the show and then take it down again," says Wob. "As soon as the show's done, as the punters are leaving, we're starting. And the main production will be out by four in the morning, that's 31 trucks.

"The black bits at the back, the steel system, we have two of those that leapfrog throughout the tour, as they take another 14 or 15 hours to take out. The logistics of this are unbelievable."

Robbie himself is a strong presence among the tour crew, turning up a good two hours before showtime to get himself psyched up.

"He's got his own routine that he goes through before he goes on stage," says Wob.

Only Robbie and the walls of his dressing room know what that routine is. But the dressing room itself is an important part of making Robbie feel comfortable and relaxed before he heads out on stage.

"We have a team of two guys who sort the dressing rooms," Wob explains. "We try and duplicate their room in every venue, so the dressing room is like a sanctuary for Rob and the band.

"They know that before they go and do their job, they've got their own calm area where they don't have to worry about the fact that the chair is a bit rickety or they can't stand the smell of the candles they've picked."

Not that Robbie hides in his dressing room. Half an hour before the Cologne show he's out in the catering area with a bunch of friends from Stoke.

It's relaxed backstage, but security is tight. You need at least three wristbands to get anywhere near where Robbie might be. Not that this stops fans from trying.

"One of the best ones is when they actually faint and get pulled over the barrier," Wob laughs. "Then once they're in with the medics, they make a run for the dressing rooms or whatever. Believe me, it's happened."

The two-hour show flies by and 75,000 people go home happy and hoarse. It's a long way from that first gig in Norwich.

"What's changed since the early days is the size," Wob says. "A lot of the band and crew are original. Rob's very much the same. "He just gets out there and enjoys it."

Robbie Williams' new single Rudebox is out this week. Robbie On The Road and Robbie Williams Live: A Close Encounter are on Sky One tomorrow night.

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