“Stop, I’m fucked!” declares a wickedly giddy Robbie Williams as a play-pretend gurn begins to creep across his face. Yet the biggest risk to health and safety as the singer closes out night one of Madrid’s Mad Cool Festival 2023 isn’t any of his suggested personal vices. Instead, it’s the risk of human towers collapsing as Williams breaks into a rollicking rendition of 1997’s ‘Let Me Entertain You’ – audience members rush to lift one another on their shoulders in a scene of pantomime-level chaos. “I’m so fucking famous,” Williams says in response, cackling as he prowls down the stage’s runway and prompts another wave of ecstatic screams to rip through the festival grounds.
This is Williams distilled to his purest form: all of his firecracker energy barely fits on the festival’s eponymous main stage. Having been “mainly” sober for 20 years, he tells us, and happily married with four kids, the global star gives his Mad Cool headline slot his all, amping up the theatrics at every given opportunity. When he’s not ricocheting between hits like ‘Feel’ and ‘Kids’, he’s rambling through showbiz anecdotes at a leisurely storyteller’s pace, imparting questionable advice like a lad who has spent his entire night talking shit in the smoking area. It’s both sublime and ridiculous at once.
Such self-awareness is part of his charm, though, as is his willingness to engage directly with the audience. Throughout a riotous ‘Candy’ he references the Oprah ‘you get a car’ meme as he throws t-shirts into the crowd, before breaking into the track’s chant-along chorus. He’s not above offering an Oasis cover either, leaning forward and arching his head up towards the mic stand as he sings ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ with genuine sincerity. Later, he has a go at ‘Could It Be Magic’ before giving up. “I can’t be bothered,” Williams exclaims through laughter. “Between me and you, I don’t think Take That were ever big in Spain.” He almost immediately follows this up with a 30 second-long rendition of the US national anthem. Of course.
If his show – which is in support of his latest compilation album, 2022’s ‘XXV’ – sometimes borders on being Butlin’s-style cheesy, it is unashamedly so: Williams performs with too much honesty and pure joy to get snobby about. Bedecked in a heavyweight silver chain and floor-length robe, he delivers a soaring rendition of ‘The Flood’, raising his mic stand above his head as the song hits its emotional climax. ‘Love My Life’, a ballad-like slice of posi-pop, features a rainbow confetti cannon.
All this gives texture, drama and soul to a show that is unpredictable and human. As he introduces ‘Angels’ by talking about how he overcame a decade of mental health issues, it is clear that, for Williams, entertaining thousands of people at festivals like this one still acts as a healing salve. He is a performer with more than enough heart to match his humour.
Robbie Williams played:
‘Hey Wow Yeah Yeah’
‘Let Me Entertain You’
‘Do What U Like’
‘Could It Be Magic’ (Barry Manilow cover)
‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (Oasis cover)
‘The Flood’ (Take That cover)
‘Love My Life’
‘She’s The One’