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croke park, dublin

After 14 years, 15 number ones and too many clunky 'flying' metaphors to keep count of, Westlife are calling it quits. On the first of two farewell shows at Croke Park, the ancient mariners of wistful man-pop are in an appropriately emotional mood, hugs and stoic bloke-tears flowing like free booze at an office party. They really do seem devastated to be going.

Fittingly for an outfit whose burning ambition often felt like their defining quality, the evening begins with wooden effigies of the foursome going up in flames. From there, the pyrotechnics seldom let up. Fireworks go off as Shane, Nicky, Kian and Mark mug their way through Kings of Leon's 'Sex on Fire'. Red spumes accompany Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The stadium bounces as one during Robbie Williams's 'Let Me Entertain You' -- a wink, surely, towards their rivalry with Take That.

There's plenty of slush to go with the special effects. Their parents and kids are paraded out for a super-slurpy 'Queen Of My Heart' (but only after a backstage delay has left Nicky Byrne frantically joshing with the crowd about the European championships). Singing 'What Makes A Man', Shane Filan, declared bankrupt in Britain just the other week, dabs his eyes. Kian Egan's lower lip doesn't stop wobbling all evening.

As the group intimate during one of the production's interminable video montages, they didn't truly want to split. Reading between the lines, it appears the catalyst was the abysmal performance of their most recent album, the unfortunately named 'Gravity' (it almost literally came crashing to earth, shifting less than 400,000 copies). In a world where boy bands are once again comprised of actual boys (see One Direction and tonight's Anglo-Irish support, The Wanted), it's obvious time was starting to catch up with Westlife. With their audience moving on, the moment had come for them to do likewise.

Ironically, their decline has coincided with the second coming of Take That, whose rejuvenation suggests middle-aged men can pass for credible chart totty if they know what they're about. Always stuck in the same gear, you wonder if Westlife had it in them to reinvent themselves in similar fashion. Rather than trying and failing, they've decided it's better to ride with dignity into the sunset. At Croke Park, they receive a warm send-off. But taking their recent record sales as a guide, you wonder how desperately they will be missed.

Irish Independent