Some 1.76 million people saw Take That perform live on the Progress Live tour earlier this summer. A further 11 million plus tune in to see Gary Barlow deliver his verdict on The X Factor every Saturday and Sunday night. But last night the Take That front-man brought The Royal Albert Hall alive all on his own. There was no 100-foot high robot to catch everyone's attention, there weren't a panel of judges putting on a 'pantomime' (as he calls it). Instead we got a good old-fashioned, stripped down gig; full of hits old and new, Ratpack classics and special guest appearances. And to top it all off, it was all for a fantastic cause.
The show - Gary's first big solo gig in over a decade - was hotly anticipated from the start. Tickets sold out within minutes of release and fans travelled from all over the country to be there. But even that high expectation couldn't have prepared us for what the man had to offer. For an artist who only occasionally pulls out his solo plans for charity, he certainly pulled out the stops. He certainly never does things by halves.
Opening the show with the phenomenal Greatest Day, Gaz had the crowd singing along almost instantly - and a string of much-loved songs followed in the form of Reach Out, Open Road, Nobody Else and A Million Love Songs.
The crowd laughed through happy tears as he took on the Pray dance routine by himself - getting down on his knees and everything. It was a Take That fan's dream 'in-joke' which he fondly initiated.
Talking through the timeline of his career, Gaz joked, "Then I released Open Road. Then I released Twelve Months, Eleven Days and it was so successful that I decided to have seven years off. I didn't sing for seven years. But then I realised how much I love to sing. I do just love to sing."
And lucky for us (and him) we love him singing too. There was a gorgeous Ratpack section, where Gaz showed his velvety vocals off on the likes of Under My Skin and Moon Dance. "This is from my new album, Sing When You're Thinning," he announced, while smoothing over the bald patch on his head.
And the stunning set didn't stop there - there was a jam-packed ballad medley with Love Ain't Here Anymore and Why Can't I Wake Up With You blended in - and the crowd gave a welcome applause to the return of the old solo material. Open Road and Forever Love gave us genuine shivers. Both still loved after almost 14 years.
A fantastic arrangement of Could It Be Magic echoed the mood of Take That's 2007 Beautiful World tour, while old Take That album tracks like Sunday Through To Saturday and Wasting My Time brought back some nineties memories that many of us still treasure. Everything Changes saw Gary work his way through the crowd while grown women hurled themselves at him for a sniff for his hair or a peck on the cheek. Somehow, he didn't miss a note.
And just when you thought this couldn't get any better, Gary brought out the bug guns - Lulu stormed on stage to deliver her feisty vocals on Relight My Fire, while Olly Murs filled Mark Owen's socks for Shine. And as if we hadn't reduced ourselves to quivering teen fan girls already, we definitely did the moment Jason Donovan arrived on stage. With Gary on piano, the pair delivered an electric offering of Too Many Broken Hearts. Even the un-girliest of journalists in our area turned around and declared, "this is the most fun I've had at a gig for as long as I can remember!"
Even the husbands and boyfriends in the audience got involved - hearing their deep chorus of Back For Good was quite special. Of course the ladies sang the line better when it was their turn. And finally, after the entire crowd had joined Gary in singing Rule The World, the show closed with Never Forget and 5,554 hands in the air for the clapping bits.
Backstage, Gary and pal Jason Donovan relaxed with a glass of white wine. He looked thrilled with how the night had gone and he told me, "You know what I love? This venue - what a beautiful place to perform. I had such a special night."
He also insisted he didn't want it to stop after his second show tomorrow. "A stripped down show here with Take That?" he smiled. "I think I might just suggest that to the boys."
People can be as snobby as they want about Gary - but there's no doubt this man can put on a show-stopping performance. Of course Mark Owen, Jason Orange and Howard Donald were missed - but they're off having a well-earned holiday while Gary continues to thrive on his charity projects. And the fact is, he made a lot of people very happy last night. And tonight he'll do it all again. But the best bit? The best bit is that it was all for The Princes Trust. A brilliant cause which will benefit greatly from a gifted man's good nature.
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