Westlife 2019: How can a boyband grow old with dignity?
Thirteen years ago, I stood awkwardly in the dressing room of Newcastle’s Metro Radio Arena and attempted to interview a quartet of nervous men before they took to the stage.
It was Take That — shorn of Robbie Williams — and they were on the comeback trail. It was their first show since splitting a decade earlier and they were understandably apprehensive. They need not have worried: as soon as they took to the stage, their old confidence returned and the songs sounded utterly revitalised.
Gary Barlow and friends may have been well into their 30s by then — and they had the greying hair, whiskers and frown lines to prove it — but they sounded like a grown-up boyband. The crowd loved every second of it and I can still recall how closing song ‘Never Forget’ was sung lustily by the throngs on the way back to the city afterwards.
Pop is often seen as a game for the young. John Lennon used to say that he didn’t want to be singing ‘She Loves You’ at 30. But it’s especially true of manufactured boy bands — what’s sexy at 20 can sound tragic at 40. And it’s for that very reason why so few successful boy bands manage to do a second (or third) coming well.
Westlife were never in the same critical ball-park as Take That, so expectations are dampened, but their Twenty Tour — to mark 20 years since they first made a major splash on the charts here and in Britain — has exceeded expectations in terms of ticket sales. Half a million have been sold so far, and both dates at Croke Park this weekend are sell-outs.
The four — sans Brian McFadden — have already played several dates, including five opening nights at Belfast’s SSE Arena, but it’s a true test of their mettle if they can make an impact in a huge stadium in their backyard (yes, I know, Nicky Byrne is the only Dublin native, but you get my drift).
They have to be able to entertain their old fans — those who were in their teens and early 20s back in the day — and connect with their offspring, many of them prepubescents. So the show has to manage to be wholesome, but playful. It has to be knowing for the original fans — now weighed down by adult responsibilities of mortgages and job insecurity — and unrelentingly entertaining for those who weren’t even born when Bryan McFadden changed his name back to plain old Brian McFadden.
It needs to constantly look back while never seeming as though its stars are stuck in the past. And Westlife need to connect with 80,000-odd souls each night in a notoriously difficult arena and hope that even those in Row XX of the upper tier of the Davin Stand feel as though they’ve got value for money. It’s no easy task.
Back to Take That. They played Croke Park in 2011, with Robbie Williams in tow, and they delivered a masterclass in how a boyband can grow old with dignity, while also being even better at their craft than they were before. Even Robbie’s giant ego — which saw him play his own mini solo show midway through the set — didn’t mess with what was a night of celebration for the best manufactured group of their era. Oh, and it helped that they were touring on the back of a really strong album, the Stuart Price-produced Progress, which featured one of their best singles in years, ‘The Flood’.
Westlife will not be touring on the back of a new album. Weirdly, they will be releasing Spectrum — their first album in nine years — in November, long after this tour has concluded. It’s a total inversion of the album-tour cycle that’s been part of music since Bill Haley first picked up a plectrum. None of the tour dates so far have featured a single song from this album, which reportedly features some Ed Sheeran co-writes — of the 19 numbers (including a medley of Queen songs) that have been in situ since that opening night in Belfast in May, there have been six covers and three each from their first two albums, Westlife and Coast To Coast. Even by the standards of boyband tours, it’s an astonishingly restrictive set list. For Croke Park to be truly memorable, they need to shake it up considerably.
Although McFadden hasn’t been part of Westlife since 2004, it would add plenty of spice to the weekend if he could be tempted to perform at least some of the oldest songs with his erstwhile mates. It would surely be no harm for McFadden, whose solo career barely got off the ground and whose post-Westlife life is probably best known for a pair of unsuccessful marriages to Kerry Katona and Vogue Williams. His latest album, Otis, came out in February and barely caused a ripple.
They might also want to bring manager Louis Walsh on stage for a bit of banter. It was Walsh, after all, who helped mastermind their success — and, lest we forget, this is a band that had 14 UK number one singles. And for kids of the original fans, the Mayo man is a celeb in his own right thanks to those 13 years on The X-Factor. No doubt there will be pyrotechnics — it’s almost de rigueur if you’re putting on a stadium show — but Westlife shouldn’t be afraid to play up the very thing they’re most derided for: stepping off their stools for the big choruses. The critics might have their heads in their hands at that point, but those who paid in would love it.
So which of the boy bands managed to keep on keeping on while well into their manhood? Boyzone had mixed fortunes. Their initial 2007 comeback was lame, although subsequent tours — following the tragic death of Stephen Gately — were imbued with a sense of poignancy about the bandmate they had lost. It was painfully obvious, though, that Ronan Keating and, to a lesser extent, Mikey Graham were having to compensate for the vocal deficiencies of Messrs Duffy and Lynch.
Across the Atlantic, Backstreet Boys have been enjoying an impressive 2019. Their comeback album, DNA, has generally been seen as a good pop album that captures much of what had appealed to their legions of supporters in the 90s, but wasn’t enslaved to the past. And their tour — which recently called to Dublin’s 3Arena — has been well received.
It hasn’t been quite so rosy for the Jonas Brothers, however. This manufactured group — manufactured by their parents, that is — have also been on the comeback trail this year, but their latest album is hamstrung by a desperation to be seen to develop artistically while being mired in a mid-2000s time warp.
And even the once unassailable Take That appear to be fraying at the edges. Now just a trio of Gary Barlow, Howard Donald and Mark Owen, their latest tour, Odyssey, concluded last week and got decidedly mixed reviews. But some things never change: they still had the wisdom to end each show with ‘Never Forget’. Now that’s smart.