Mike Atkinson

Elton John – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Tuesday June 24

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 15, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Personally invited by Elton John onto this section of his world tour, Bright Light Bright Light – the alter ego of Welsh-born Rod Thomas – delivered a crisp, well received set of tuneful, heartfelt electronic pop. Elton guested on his last single, and a second album, Life Is Easy, is due out next month. “The best thing is that we get to watch Elton every night for a month”, Rod grinned, enjoying every moment of his time on stage.

Despite all the sumptuous, extravagant gloss of his celebrity lifestyle, an Elton John show is first and foremost about the music. The staging was straightforward and gimmick-free, and the performances were spirited, soulful and technically immaculate. Over the course of 26 songs and nearly two and a half hours, the 67 year-old superstar drew on material that spanned 44 years of continuing success, from his 1970 breakthrough hit Your Song to the most recent album, The Diving Board.

To mark the 40th anniversary reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the set opened with selections from the classic double album, starting with the whole of Side One. A magnificent Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding set the bar high, the lights coming up during its atmospheric instrumental overture to reveal the band, which included long-term collaborators Davy Johnstone on guitar and Nigel Olsson on drums. Dark suits and dark glasses were the order of the day, with a side order of glitter on Elton’s costume.

Hopping back a couple of years to the Madman Across The Water album, Levon and Tiny Dancer were early highlights, the former showcasing Elton’s piano-playing prowess with the first of many dazzling, rapturous solo breaks. This was to become a common theme for the set, as songs were extended and brought to thrilling instrumental climaxes. During these passages, the players exchanged broad smiles, nodding approvingly at each other, as if hearing each other for the first time.

A stately, mellifluous piano solo introduced Rocket Man, teasing us with its unfamiliarity before eventually cutting to the familiar opening line. The ovation at the end of the song drew Elton away from his piano for the first time, as he acknowledged our applause from each corner of the stage. This was good news for the seated punters on the left hand side, as they finally got to see more than the back of his head.

Introducing Oceans Away, written to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Elton dedicated the song to the memory of those who lost their lives in military conflict. “Everyone who fights for freedom for us deserves our respect”, he told us. Appropriately enough, it was followed by Someone Saved My Life Tonight, another standout moment. Elsewhere, Philadelphia Freedom was so funky, that even the cameraman at the side of the stage couldn’t help jigging along.

Towards the end of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, as if summoned by an invisible signal, the punters in the front three rows surged towards the edge of the stage, ready for the final rock-out: I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist and a rip-roaring Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.

They stayed put for the encore: Your Song, a glorious Are You Ready For Love, and a gleefully celebratory Crocodile Rock. Reprising the first verse, Elton cheekily altered the lyric – “I remember when rock was young, Doctor Crippen had so much fun” – as Davey Johnstone mimed an axe murderer’s chop.

Blending much-loved classics with favourite album tracks from Elton’s vast catalogue, the set ranged from stripped-down balladry to blue-eyed soul and surging rock, uniting the generations and reminding us of Elton John’s continued mastery of his craft, both vocally and instrumentally. He can come back and entertain us as often as he likes. An outstanding night.

Set list: Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding, Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind, Grey Seal, Levon, Tiny Dancer, Believe, Philadelphia Freedom, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rocket Man, Hey Ahab, I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, The One, Oceans Away, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, Sad Songs (Say So Much), All the Girls Love Alice, Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, I’m Still Standing, The Bitch Is Back, Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n Roll), Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Your Song, Are You Ready for Love, Crocodile Rock.

Katy Perry – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Sunday May 11

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 12, 2014

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

No one could ever accuse Katy Perry of doing things by half measures. Just over three years after her last visit, she returned to Nottingham with a stage show that was every bit as breathtakingly elaborate as before.

This was just the fourth date on Katy’s Prismatic World Tour, which she will be performing around the world from now until December, and although the staging was technically flawless, her crew took a lot longer than planned to put everything in place.

This wasn’t good news for the fans queuing outside, who were kept waiting for an extra 90 minutes, and it was even worse news for those with trains to catch at the end of the night, who were obliged to leave the venue well before the final encore. The Arena’s Twitter account was suitably apologetic, but as for La Perry herself, there was apparently no room in her script to say “sorry folks, we messed up”.

That said, the 90 minute delay had shrunk to 45 minutes by the time that Katy took to the stage, and no time-saving cuts were made to the two-hour extravaganza, which finished twenty-five minutes short of midnight. There must have been a lot of yawning in class on Monday morning, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.

Opening the show with Roar, perhaps her biggest hit to date, Katy emerged from a collapsing pyramid, in the centre of a massively extended triangular stage that reached more than halfway into the Arena’s standing section. In the middle of this triangle, her superfans were enclosed in a special pen, cut off from the rest of the crowd. This wasn’t perhaps the ideal vantage point, as their idol spent a lot of time at the very front of the stage, with her back turned to them – but they still looked appropriately thrilled throughout.

Setting the bar courageously high for the rest of the show, Roar featured tribal warriors with illuminated Mohicans and light spears, luminous skipping ropes, backwards conveyor belts that held the running dancers stationary – and that was before we got to the rising, rotating platforms, the high wires, the trapezes, the floating prisms, the giant teacups and all the rest of it. In the midst of this spectacle, Katy shimmied, hoofed and mugged, ever the showgirl, in a space-age crop top and matching skater skirt. The hem of her skirt and the edges of her top were also illuminated, as were the braids in her pony tail.

“We’re back”, she announced. “Let’s be in this moment, right now, together. Let’s forget about tomorrow!” Across the hall, anxious mothers checked their watches, while their daughters screamed with unrestrained delight.

While the 2011 show stuck to a carefully themed narrative, the Prismatic Tour jumped between wildly contrasting sections. For the second act, the stage turned into Ancient Egypt, as Katy reappeared on a gigantic golden horse, dressed as Cleopatra. For the third act, she returned to her alter ego, “Kitty Purry”, clad in a hot pink catsuit with matching ears, standing on a ball of wool.  Towards the end of the show, dayglo and neon were the order of the day, with an early Nineties retro feel; a bra top was adorned with smiley faces on each breast, and a black and white yin-and-yang skirt rose ever higher from the stage. Elsewhere, an inflatable pink Cadillac transported the dancers along the catwalks – Nicki Minaj had one of those, too, but this was a sturdier construction – while a giant pink champagne bottle and a tube of lipstick floated around the sides of the hall.

Things calmed down for the acoustic section, giving Katy a chance to focus on her interpretative skills, on new album tracks such as By The Grace Of God and Double Rainbow. Although this did rather expose her limitations as an artist – sincerity isn’t her strongest suit – it did allow her to forge a more personal connection with her fans. “I usually don’t perspire, but my back is sweating right now”, she confessed, before reaching for a refreshing pint of beer. “Down it! Down it!”, the crowd chanted, in true Nottingham style. “I am a lady!”, she retorted, before handing most of her pint over to a grateful punter, with a word of caution: “I have a bit of a cold, so drink it – but I’ll be with you for between ten days and two weeks.”

Towards the end of the acoustic section, Katy took out her phone and called her mother, to wish her a happy Mother’s Day (in the US, they celebrate on a different date). “She has no idea, so let’s put her on speaker phone, and see what comes out of her mouth.” Mother Perry handled the surprise well, graciously wishing us all goodbye at the end of the call. It was a rare unscripted moment, and all the more entertaining for it.

Having focussed on her most recent album, Prism, for most of the show, Katy returned to some of her older hits for the finale: Teenage Dream, California Gurls, and a showstopping rendition of Firework. Alone on the stage in a voluminous multi-coloured skirt, she twirled beneath the pyrotechnics, singing her heart out, caught up in the moment, and unabashedly lapping up the experience for all it was worth. The triumph was deserved. No one else at the top of their game in contemporary pop is working it as hard as Katy Perry right now; for while Gaga and Bieber might be stumbling, she continues to reign supreme.

Set list: Roar, Part Of Me, Wide Awake, This Moment/Love Me, Dark Horse, E.T., Legendary Lovers, I Kissed A Girl, Hot N Cold, International Smile/Vogue, By The Grace Of God, The One That Got Away/Thinking Of You, Double Rainbow, Unconditionally, Walking On Air, It Takes Two, This Is How We Do/Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), Teenage Dream, California Gurls, Birthday, Firework.

The Guardian gig venue guide: Capital FM Arena, Nottingham

Posted in Capital FM Arena, features, The Guardian by Mike A on March 11, 2014

Capacity: 10,000 standing, 9,300 seated

Who plays there: A-list pop stars: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction, Lady Gaga. R&B superstars: Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna, Usher. Heritage legends: Elton John, Rod Stewart, Meat Loaf, Status Quo. Festival headliners: Kings of Leon, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Elbow. Few acts are too big to play here, although Springsteen, Madonna and the Stones are still beyond its reach.

Continue reading this article at The Guardian.

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Girls Aloud – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Tuesday 19 March

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 30, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post

If this isn’t the Girls Aloud farewell tour, then it’s certainly doing a good impression of one.  After just over ten years at the top – or seven years plus an extended break, if you’re being picky – the girls are coming towards the end of a tour that celebrates their past achievements: twenty-one hit singles, seven big-selling albums, and a career that has defied all expectations.

“This is our penultimate show”, said Kimberley. “That’s the one before last”, she added, just in case we were struggling with the word “penultimate”. With just twenty-four hours left on the Girls Aloud clock, this made for an emotionally charged night. At times, some of the girls looked close to tears (especially Sarah, whose top lip seemed particularly prone to quivering), but for the most part, they seemed determined to have as much fun as possible (especially Cheryl, who looked like she was having an absolute blast from start to end). The smiles were real, the enjoyment was never forced, and the party mood onstage gradually infected the initially reserved crowd, allowing us to give them the warmest of send-offs.

While lesser acts might have been happy to shuffle on and off stage from the wings, Girls Aloud had grander schemes. They began the show suspended in mid air, perched on top of a platform that spelt out their name. The same platform re-appeared mid-show, lifting the girls from the main stage and slowly transporting them to a specially constructed rear platform. At other times, the performers simply popped up through holes in the floor, freshly changed and ready for the next sequence.

The set list took us through the group’s hit-making career in near-chronological order, starting with Sound Of The Underground – the winners’ song from 2002’s Popstars: The Rivals – and finishing with last year’s comeback single, Something New. It was a guided tour through one of the most consistently inventive catalogues in recent pop history, with songs that plundered fifty years of musical styles – new wave, electro-pop, eurodance, rock & roll, disco, blues and show tunes alike – and bent them into an instantly recognisable signature sound, topping them with witty, surreal and leftfield lyrics.

If the crowd seemed slow to respond at first, an absolutely banging version of Jump brought everyone alive, as the girls worked every corner of the stage, accompanied by eleven tirelessly energetic dancers. Switching from burlesque-inspired outfits to Mardi Gras-style head-dresses and wings, they paraded down an extended catwalk for The Show, twirling their outsized carnival costumes. This massed catwalk strut proved to be a favourite move, as the girls seized every opportunity to work their runway, pouting and vamping like seasoned supermodels.

“This is our favourite part of the show” said Nicola, as the group arrived on the rear stage for a three-song set. But while those at the back of the arena enjoyed their enhanced view, the fans at the front were left somewhat in limbo, many still facing towards the main stage. Stronger songs would have helped to bridge the gap, but this was where the chronological approach started to wear thin, revealing a certain drop-off in excitement compared to those brilliantly inventive early hits. In retrospect, this was probably an attempt by the group’s songwriting team to steer the group into more mature waters – but Girls Aloud were always at their best when at their brashest and brattiest.

With that in mind, perhaps it makes sense to call it a day after ten years, while the girls can still be brash enough and bratty enough. It’s difficult to imagine them performing songs like No Good Advice and Something Kinda Ooooh once they hit their mid-thirties, and so perhaps they shouldn’t even try. Instead, let’s remember them at their peak: fondly serenading both us and each other with I’ll Stand By You, then sending us home with The Promise, their biggest hit of all.

“Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts”, said Cheryl. “Not only for tonight, but also for the last ten years.” Girls Aloud, we’re going to miss you. Sure, you’re only a daft little pop group – but you’re also one hell of a classy act.

Set list: Sound of the Underground, No Good Advice, Life Got Cold, Wake Me Up, Jump, The Show, Love Machine, Whole Lotta History, Can’t Speak French, Biology, Sexy! No No No…, Untouchable, On the Metro, Call the Shots, Something Kinda Ooooh, Call Me Maybe, Beautiful ‘Cause You Love Me, Something New, I’ll Stand By You, The Promise.

Justin Bieber – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Saturday March 2

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 10, 2013

This review originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

By all accounts – including his own – Justin Bieber’s nineteenth birthday celebrations hadn’t exactly gone according to plan. “Worst birthday”, he tweeted in the early hours of Saturday morning, having left his own party after just a few minutes.

Concerned “Beliebers” rallied round. There are over 35 million of them, so it was quite a huddle.  By Saturday afternoon, a hashtag was trending: #OperationMakeBieberSmile.

Queuing outside the Capital FM Arena in their thousands, Justin’s Nottingham fans had been placed on a historic mission. This was their hero’s first performance as a nineteen year-old, and his emotional well-being was now in their hands. Were they up to the challenge?

As historic missions go, this was a tough one. Many had queued for over nine hours, eager to secure the best possible spot inside the venue. The support acts – Australia’s Cody Simpson, and Justin’s fellow Canadian Carly Rae Jepsen – kept the troops entertained, but as the expected twenty minute gap between Jepsen and Bieber stretched into an eighty minute slog, even the most dedicated diehards could be forgiven for wilting.

Where was Justin? And why the extra hour’s delay? Was he still sore after the party that never was, and throwing a backstage teenage strop?

We may never know. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the Arena itself, whose organisation of the whole event deserves a special mention; other venues could learn a lot from their informative approach, and their genuine concern for the welfare of their young guests. “We cannot control when an artist is ready to go onstage”, they explained.

Naturally, none of this dampened the screams of delight when Justin finally took to the stage. And despite the lateness of the hour, he still performed his full set, stretching way beyond the expected 11pm curfew.

As entrances go, this was one of the most spectacular that the Arena has ever seen. Attached to a truly enormous pair of grey wings, the star of the show emerged high up at the back of the main stage, then sailed gracefully down to a waiting spotlight at the very front of the long extended stage, narrowly avoiding a forest of outstretched hands. Fireworks popped, lasers flashed, ticker-tape shimmered. It was quite the moment.

Opening with forthcoming single All Around The World, a high-energy stomper with clubbed-up beats, Justin and his troupe launched into the first of many well-drilled routines. But where was that all-important #BieberSmile?  The staging was faultless, but what of the man? Still playing it cool behind his shades, he was difficult to read.

“Don’t throw things onto the stage”, he chided us after the second number, pointing at a stray T-shirt that could have caused a nasty slip. At this early stage, he felt less like a fantasy boyfriend, and more like a cross prefect. The mission wasn’t getting any easier.

The pace slowed for Catching Feelings, a rather lovely Michael Jackson-style ballad from last year’s Believe album. Although Bieber doesn’t yet have an out-and-out pop classic in his repertoire – a Baby One More Time or a Billie Jean, that the rest of the non-Beliebing world can fall in love with – Believe marks a clear step forward artistically, as he begins to move away from the toothsome teenpop that first made his name.

Tellingly, three of those early hits, including the winsome Eenie Meenie, were bundled together in an early medley, clearing the decks for the all-new Bieber 2.0. The trademark fringe went ages ago, replaced by a neat quiff, and tattoos appear to be springing up on an almost weekly basis; the owl on the left forearm looked particularly fetching.

Other musical highlights included Die In Your Arms, an old-school soul number with a slight Bruno Mars touch, and an affectingly sincere acoustic performance of Be Alright, accompanied by a lone guitarist. Justin strapped on a guitar of his own for Fall; at other times, he could be found behind a drum kit or a grand piano.

A missed cue led to a somewhat lacklustre Never Say Never, and a slight but significant sagging of energy levels in the room. This wasn’t good enough for Justin (“We’ve got to get it back to a ten, and I think that was a nine”), and we were duly urged to scream our loudest screams for Beauty And A Beat. The strategy succeeded, as the star worked the dance track as hard as he could. If he had seemed a tad diffident at the start, he was certainly firing on all cylinders by the end.

For One Less Lonely Girl, a lucky fan was hoisted onto the stage, placed on a makeshift throne, crowned with flowers, and fondly hugged. Others might have collapsed into hysterical sobs, but Justin had chosen well; this one kept her dignity, and beamed with amazed delight.

“You can do anything you want to do in life”, Justin told us, introducing the title track to Believe. “There’s nothing holding you back.” Inspiring words indeed, but perhaps a few of his fans could have shown a little more restraint during the final encore. Having peeled off his sweat-soaked vest and hurled it into the crowd, a newly topless Justin suddenly had a full-blown scrap on his hands. Reverting briefly to prefect mode, he stopped the band and resolved the dispute, then launched straight back into Baby, his best known hit.

And yes, he was smiling at last. #OperationMakeBieberSmile had been successfully concluded, and our boy looked like the luckiest nineteen year-old in the world. “Thanks for being there for me tonight”, he tweeted after the show. “You got me smiling. Love you. Thank you.” Justin, the pleasure was all ours.

Set list: All Around The World, Take You, Catching Feelings, One Time, Eenie Meenie, Somebody To Love, Love Me Like You Do, She Don’t Like The Lights, Die In Your Arms, Out Of Town Girl, Be Alright, Fall, Never Say Never, Beauty And A Beat, One Less Lonely Girl, As Long As You Love Me, Believe, Boyfriend, Baby.

Donny & Marie Osmond – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Sunday January 27

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 12, 2013

Originally published in the Nottingham Post.

Osmonds fans are a friendlier bunch than most. “Are you enjoying it?” ask the couple on our right. “Wonderful, aren’t they?” In the interval, the lady behind us leans forward. “I’m 78 years old, and they make me feel like I’m 18 again”, she beams. Meanwhile, the super-fan on our left is telling us about the “I love Donny” slogan that she daubed on her bedroom wall. Forty years on, it’s still there; her mother won’t paint it out.

They’re a mischievous bunch, as well. “Please stay in your seats”, urges Donny, descending from the stage for a promenading rendition of The Twelfth Of Never. Fat chance, mate. A couple of times, he’s almost wrestled to the floor, as ladies who are old enough to know better launch themselves at their idol, seizing their moment after all these years. My super-fan friend gets a kiss, and shrieks with delight; my mate gets a manly high-five.

For Close Every Door, Donny plays the part of an imprisoned Joseph, stripped of his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  “Do what you want with me”, he intones, surrendering to captivity with solemn dignity. The invitation is too much for his adoring army. There’s a roar of fruity laughter, laced with a hint of menace. It doesn’t derail him. “Hate me and laugh at me”, he glares, continuing the verse. It almost feels like a rebuke.

Hate him and laugh at him? Donny’s no stranger to either, and neither is his sister Marie. Mocked for their wholesomeness in the Seventies, dismissed as old hat in the Eighties, they stood their ground and shrugged off the knocks. And just look at them now: fresh from a four year run in Las Vegas, filling arenas, back on top and having the last laugh.

And there’s a lot of laughter in a Donny and Marie show. “I have to say Hi to my favourite fan”, says Marie, puffed out after a rocking mash-up of Walk This Way and These Boots Are Made For Walking that’s as raunchy as her faith will allow. Crouching in front of the wind machine, she duly fans herself, good and proper (“I’m so hot!”), before grabbing a bottle of water and slugging it down in one. (“And you thought Mormons couldn’t drink!”)

It’s a polished, practised show, but there are surprises along the way. The other Osmond brothers are also in the UK, touring in the Seventies musical Boogie Nights. Donny teases us with an announcement, the crowd goes wild… and then a bunch of fake Osmonds prance onto the stage, recreating dance moves from one of the early hits. At the end of the number, Marie saunters on from the wings. “If you can handle it, I have another dancer”, she grins, ushering real-life brother Jay onto the stage. Donny looks genuinely shocked. The brothers confer, some stools are rustled up, and we are treated to an impromptu duet: Love Me For A Reason, the biggest Osmonds smash of all.

Seventies nostalgia is a key element of the evening – how could it not be? – but there’s much more besides: Las Vegas-style production numbers, Broadway medleys, a little bit of country, a little bit of rock ‘n roll (they have a song about that), and even a touch of opera. Marie’s soprano is a revelation, and her impassioned renditions of Pie Jesu and Nessun Dorma earn her two of the biggest ovations of the night. “I know you’re all here to see Donny”, she sighs – but sibling rivalry can be a powerful motivating force, and Marie works it hard, fully earning her equal billing.

The pair begin and end the show together, but mostly they perform apart, in alternating sets. The hit duets are saved for the end, and while they go down a treat with the fans, you can’t help but notice a certain distance between the older brother and the younger sister. Their voices fuse perfectly, but their eyes almost never meet. There’s scripted banter, but little warmth in the exchanges, leaving you wondering whether their relationship is more of a professional than a familial one these days. But it’s a minor quibble, at the end of a hugely entertaining evening that sends every single fan home smiling.

Set list:
Donny & Marie: It Takes Two, Vegas Love, Get The Party Started, Dancing In The Street, Knock On Wood, I Want To Take You Higher
Marie: Paper Roses, Walk This Way, These Boots Are Made For Walking, Crazy, Like A Hurricane/Country Medley, Pie Jesu
Donny: Crazy Horses, Puppy Love, Yo Yo, Love Me For A Reason (duet with Jay), I Just Want To Celebrate, Dynamite, Celebration
Broadway sequence: Give My Regards To Broadway (Donny), I Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting To Know You (Marie), Beauty And The Beast (Donny), The Sound Of Music, Climb Every Mountain (Marie), Close Every Door (Donny), For Good (Donny & Marie)
Rock This Town (Donny & Marie), The Twelfth Of Never (Donny), Nessun Dorma, All That Jazz, Cabaret, But The World Goes ‘Round (Marie), Soldier of Love (Donny)
Donny & Marie: A Little Bit Country (A Little Bit Rock & Roll), I’m Leaving It All Up To You, Make The World Go Away, Deep Purple, Morning Side Of The Mountain, A Beautiful Life, Remember When, It Takes Two (reprise), May Tomorrow Be A Perfect Day

Nicki Minaj – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Sunday October 22

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on October 22, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

Hot on the heels of Jake Bugg’s album chart success, there was another musical first for Nottingham on Sunday night: the opening show of Nicki Minaj’s first ever arena tour.

As you would expect, the Trinidadian-born rapper has commissioned a big production job, with an elaborate stage set, fireworks, flame-throwers, animated projections, dance routines, costume changes, the full works – although live musicians were notably absent from the stage.

Almost inevitably, there were a few first-night glitches to contend with. Following well-received sets by Misha B and Tyga, the headline set was late starting – meaning that many audience members had to leave after the first hour – and by the time that it came to end, there were only twenty-five minutes left in the day. There were some awkward pauses between sections of the show, which Nicki’s DJ did his best to fill, but his call-and-response routines did wear thin at times.

There was accidental fun to be had along the way, though. One particularly plunging costume turned out to have a few problems in the fitting department, leaving Nicki fighting an almost constant battle against slippage. Towards the end of Va Va Voom, one of her more energetic numbers, the inevitable finally happened. “You guys have seen my boobs before”, she shrugged.  “You won’t tell anyone, will you?  What happens in Nottingham….”

“…STAYS in Nottingham”, roared the crowd, stuffing their smartphones back into their pockets.

A variety of vehicles brought the star to the stage. As the curtains opened, she emerged from a rather dinky little spaceship, complete with a vanity mirror inside its pint-sized cabin. Video projections had shown the ship blazing through the cosmos, before touching down on Planet Earth – only to be wheeled off, rather humiliatingly, by a stage hand. If there were any Spinal Tap fans in the audience, they might have been reminded of the spoof tour documentary’s famous “Stonehenge” scene. Had Team Minaj ordered something bigger, perhaps?

After the wardrobe malfunction, and a rather too lengthy break for the next costume change, Nicki re-appeared in a sparkling silver bathtub, clad in a full length bathrobe with a voluminous, furry collar. Underneath it, a skimpy little number twinkled invitingly. This time, the lady was taking no chances. The robe stayed firmly on, and the skimpy little number remained a well-concealed mystery.

An even longer break delayed the next section, and the DJ was fast running out of tricks. To their credit, the crowd stayed patient, never losing their will to party. Finally, the stage doors opened, and out came Nicki and her dancers, making merry in an open-topped pink convertible. There was just one snag: the vehicle was inflatable, and the backstage crew had clearly run clean out of puff.

As Nicki soon discovered, a semi-inflated convertible doesn’t offer the smoothest of rides. The car bounced and lurched, and the rapper bobbed in and out of view, still smiling gamely, if a little queasily. For one heart-stopping moment, the dashboard appeared to swallow her up completely, but the dancers saved the day, prising her out of the driver’s seat and depositing her safely on dry land. They won’t have fun like this in Manchester, or in London. We were the lucky ones.

Happily, none of these shenanigans dented Nicki’s showmanship and star quality. The steel-willed super-achiever in her would never have allowed it. The routines stayed slick, and the rapper’s flow remained razor-sharp. Perhaps she could have cut a little looser during the clubby pop bangers, which seemed to trap her slightly within her role. Like Katy Perry before her, the showgirl smile sometimes felt like a mask, shielding us from the woman within.

Perhaps this was why the show’s final segment worked so well. Freed from all stage trickery, her dancers dispatched to the wings, the rapper returned to her hardcore hip hop roots, spitting out her rhymes with dazzling brilliance, and a fiery conviction that hadn’t quite been there before. Meanwhile, the diehard fans in the front rows returned every word, almost turning the performance into a conversation.

“This is such an emotional night for me”, she told us, visibly moved by the crowd’s affection and loyalty. “Because this is the first show of my first arena tour, I will always remember you guys. And I mean that. This isn’t fake. This is real.”

If Nicki Minaj can hold onto that realness and nurture her on-stage connection with her ever-loving fanbase, even as the venues grow in size, then her biggest tour to date could just turn out to be her greatest triumph yet.

Drake – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Wednesday April 25

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 26, 2012

(originally published in the Nottingham Post)

It was the last night of Drake’s European tour, so the Canadian hip-hop superstar was in the mood for celebrating. This was his best night of the tour, we were told – and despite certain lingering suspicions, it would have been mean-spirited to disbelieve him.

Functionally attired in a plain black shirt, that was discarded mid-set to reveal an equally plain black singlet (and a finely sculpted pair of shoulders), Drake has made his mark by setting himself apart from his blingier musical cousins. Although his tracks are stuffed full of the usual bad-boy bragging – he’s a magnet for the ladies, he’s dripping with cash, he’s basically God’s gift to mankind – the boasts are subverted by uncertainties, doubts and vulnerabilities.

It doesn’t always quite add up, though. On Marvin’s Room, one of the key tracks on his monumentally successful Take Care album, our hero seems to be trying to have it both ways. “I’ve had sex four times this week, I’ll explain, having a hard time adjusting to fame”, he sings, in a less than convincing bid for our sympathy. As for the album’s mega-selling title track, an affecting duet with Rihanna that casts the pair as estranged lovers, driven apart by forces beyond their control, the emotional impact was rather diluted when Drake chose to express his anguish by hoicking up his top and flashing his abs.

Then again, a Drake show is more about showmanship than soulfulness, and showmanship is a quality which he has in abundance. A natural arena performer, he worked the crowd to fever pitch, without needing to fall back on fancy dance routines or elaborate props. An unobtrusive six-piece band were kept to the sidelines, and the clever video graphics never intruded too much on the strong connection between the star and his adoring fans.

“I can tell it’s real women that listen to my music”, he purred, keen to distinguish them from the “bitches” that constantly pepper his lyrics. As for that troublesome (and equally overused) n-word, we were given a special dispensation – valid for one night only – to apply it to ourselves, regardless of ethnicity. (“I don’t recommend this strategy outside the building”, he cautioned.)

Eager to get to know us all on a one-to-one basis, Drake devoted nearly fifteen minutes of his ninety minute set to an extended “I see you” routine, in which he picked out individual members of the crowd, describing their clothes, their hair, or their physique. (“You’ve got a lot of things going on with your body that I love!” he exclaimed, pointing at an ecstatic fan in the front row.) It’s not an original trick – Beyoncé did much the same thing in the same venue, a few years back – but it made dozens of people feel special, even including your reviewer. (“I see you in the polo!”)

The night climaxed with a storming version of The Motto – a straight-up party banger with a bowel- quaking sub-bass – swiftly followed by a dazzling Headlines, whose lyrics flashed across the stage in perfect synch. The road crew danced on stage, invited up to mark the last night, while each and every one of the capacity crowd gave it maximum welly. No encore was offered, but none was needed; Drizzy had delivered, and the Arena had shown him all their love.

Tinie Tempah – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Friday November 11

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 13, 2011

Tinie Tempah has been here before, but never quite like this. Back in May 2010, a couple of months after debuting at Number One with his first single Pass Out, an unassuming young chap in a plain white T-shirt stepped onto the Capital FM Arena stage, armed with nothing more than a microphone and a backing track. Third on the bill to Pixie Lott and Rihanna, his likeable but basic four-song set gave little indication of the million-selling, Brit-winning, Glastonbury-rocking, arena-filling superstar that he was to become.

When he returned to town in February this year, for a sell-out appearance at Rock City, it already felt like he was too big for the venue. “Surely an arena tour beckons for Tempah now”, our reviewer predicted.

Following a massive summer on the national and international festival circuit, Tinie has been taking his first full-scale arena tour all around the UK this month. The night before Nottingham, he had played Wembley Arena , so perhaps our modest 9000-capacity venue was already starting to feel a little intimate.

He certainly had the sound system for a venue of twice the size, for even by Arena standards this was a loud one. Thunderous bass frequencies tore through the hall, making bowels quake and seats vibrate; not really a problem, as there was almost no one sitting in them after the first couple of minutes. But despite whacking the volume knob way past “11”, the sound mixers never compromised on clarity. When live rap does battle with muddy sound, the results can be horrendous, but the dynamics of this show would have put many rock acts to shame.

The star made his entrance in a flash of fireworks, emerging from the smoke in a black track suit with Spiderman-like blue stripes, his face still obscured by hood and shades.  (The hood eventually came down, but the shades stayed on all night.) Tangles of fluorescent string adorned his back, as if he had been ambushed by a thousand party poppers.

The reaction in the hall was so intense, that the crowd never really recovered from it. From the opening bars of the first song to the final notes of the last encore, madness and mayhem reigned. Fists pumped the air, boots pummelled the floor, mosh pits formed and dissolved, and the screams gave even the turbo-charged sound system a run for its money.

Despite making the classic mistake of name-checking Derby at a Nottingham gig – “It’s all about love!”, he protested, as the boos rang out – Tinie delivered a flawless performance, combining a showman’s swagger with razor-sharp lyrical precision. Behind him, the band performed in cages made from tube lighting, which rose from the floor during Let Go and glowed blood-red during Obsession. The usual arena conventions were observed – the “left side, right side, who’s the loudest” pantomime, the acoustic section, the sudden re-appearance at the back of the hall – but Tinie’s Skype video call from Swedish House Mafia was a neat new trick, even if the chances of it actually happening in real-time felt slim. The call provided the cue for Miami 2 Ibiza – or rather “Notts 2 Ibiza”, as it was sung on the night – which sent energy levels to previously unimaginable new heights, putting whole new dimensions of “bang” into Swedish House Mafia’s club banger.

“These are the best days of our lives, whether we know it or not”, he told us, just before knocking us all dead with Written In The Stars. It was a fitting observation for a show that was all about cutting loose, letting go, living it up, and celebrating the moment.

Next time round, they’ll have to find a football stadium for him. And that probably won’t be big enough, either…

Set list: Intro, Simply Unstoppable, Frisky, Till I’m Gone, Wonderman, Illusion, Snap, Written In The Stars, Love Suicide, Invincible, Let Go, Obsession, Miami 2 Ibiza, Hitz, Mosh Pit, Earthquake, Pass Out.

Bruno Mars – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Tuesday November 1

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 2, 2011

When it comes to showing commitment, the fans of Bruno Mars are a hard act to beat. Outside the Capital FM Arena, the diehards had been queuing since morning, determined to bag the best spots at the front of the stage. And when the curtain was raised, revealing their diminutive hero in a feathered hat, loose black suit, striped vest and sneakers, the screams rose to an almost Bieber-like intensity.

Hawaiian born, to Puerto Rican and Filipino parents, Bruno has an appeal which crosses national boundaries. Over the past twelve months, the seemingly never-ending Doo-Wops & Hooligans tour has taken him several times around the globe, to venues which have steadily increased in capacity. But although this was the penultimate date of the tour, the freshness of the performers remained commendably undimmed.

Bruno’s long-time collaborator Philip Lawrence, who supplied backing vocals and joined the three-piece brass section in a series of tightly executed dance routines, never tired of geeing the crowd up – particularly in the middle of The Lazy Song, when his girly squeal (“Oh my God, this is great!”) literally stopped the whole show. “I think I might move here!”, he exclaimed. “Follow me on Twitter!”, he added, caught up in the heat of the moment – and cracking Bruno up so badly that he could barely resume the song.

Unlike most of this year’s big pop shows at the Arena, this was a stripped-down, gimmick-free affair, with no props, no dance troupes and no costume changes. If the playing had been anything less than spot-on, this could have made for a lacklustre show – but with the focus placed squarely upon the music, the players rose to the challenge.  This was a tight, funky, versatile team, who could effortlessly switch from reggae to soul, and from R&B to rock, drawing on past traditions – the show often felt like a classic soul revue – while connecting with contemporary trends.

As for Bruno himself, he had an unusual knack of combining sunny wholesomeness – there was more than a touch of Donny Osmond about him, particularly in the dental department – with an unblinking sexual directness, such that even the ruder lyrics still somehow sounded clean. Steeped in music since childhood, his references ranged from Michael Jackson (particularly on Top Of The World, introduced as the first song he ever wrote) to James Brown (Runaway Baby, as recently performed on The X Factor, was an early highlight), via Fifties doo-wop, Sixties Motown and Seventies reggae.

The Doo-Wops & Hooligans album, from which most of the set was drawn, is a light, easy-going affair for the most part, with something of the relaxed appeal of Bruno’s fellow Hawaiian, Jack Johnson. It’s the sort of album which might have soundtracked your holiday, wafting out of your favourite beach bar for days on end. Sure, it’s undemanding stuff for the most part, and lyrics such as “You can count on me, like one two three” are hardly likely to be remembered as enduring classics, but there has always been a place in pop for simple good cheer, and it was hard to argue with the effect that it had on the Arena’s capacity crowd. Beautifully sung and fondly executed, the ninety minute set left nine thousand happy fans wreathed in smiles. Job well done, Mister Mars.

Set list: The Other Side, Top Of The World, Money (That’s What I Want), Billionaire, Our First Time, Runaway Baby, Marry You, The Lazy Song, Count On Me, Liquor Store Blues, Nothin’ On You, Grenade, Just The Way You Are, Lighters, Talking To The Moon.

Katy Perry – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Wednesday March 30

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 31, 2011

Even if you think you don’t know Katy Perry, you’ll probably have heard her somewhere – for over the past two and a half years, her biggest hits have been pretty much inescapable. They’re the sort of emphatically hooky pop monsters that lodge in your brain after a couple of plays, even if you’re only half-listening. You’ll have heard them blaring out of car windows, or leaking out of noisy bars, or soundtracking your fast food purchases.

But even if you do know something about Katy Perry, you wouldn’t have learnt much more about her by the end of last night’s witty, colourful, but somewhat over-scripted spectacle at the Capital FM Arena. As you’d expect, she played the part of the brash, fun-loving showgirl to a tee, but her stage persona never slipped for an instant, and it was hard to read much expression behind those amazing, cat-like eyes.

We did pick up a few little nuggets of personal information along the way, though. “I feel like I’m English now”, she told us. “You’ve adopted me.” Perhaps guided by the influence of her husband Russell Brand, Katy has developed a love of English food: bubble and squeak, and roast dinners with Yorkshire pudding, which she claims to eat every Sunday. (“I can hardly fit into my costumes!”)

“I have become a lover of football”, she squealed. “Anyone here from Nudding-ham County?” Whoops. A few scattered boos echoed around the hall. “Don’t you like your home town? What about Nudding-ham Forest?” Even louder boos. Bad move, Katy. But she was on safer territory when naming her favourite TV programmes: My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and The Only Way Is Essex (“but I can’t understand what anyone is saying!”) drew roars of approval.

Billed as the “California Dreams” tour, the show was cleverly themed around a fairy tale concept, with heavy nods to The Wizard Of Oz and Alice In Wonderland. The live performances were interspersed with imaginatively shot film clips, which traced the journey of Katy and her cat (named “Kitty Purry” – feel free to groan) as they made their way through a dream-like fantasy world, on their way to the “Big City Baker’s Ball”.

The fairy tale theme was reflected in the stage set, which was adorned with giant lollipops and enormous cup cakes, and in the almost pantomime-like costumes worn by the players. As for Katy’s dazzling array of outfits, which transformed after almost every number as layers were either added or shed, you had to wonder whether she was chasing a place in the record books for the largest number of costume changes ever witnessed on a concert stage. During Hot N Cold alone, Katy worked her way through six different frocks, stepping in and out of makeshift changing rooms with a magician’s flair. Best of all was her opening ensemble, which coupled a scarlet, heart-shaped bustier top with a puffball skirt that was seemingly spun from pink candy floss.

Given that many of the songs – Waking Up In Vegas, Last Friday Night, I Kissed A Girl – are about over-indulging, losing control and behaving recklessly, the dream-like staging rendered them almost harmless, as if the over-the-top antics were only happening in the pages of a story book. At one point in the show, Katy was tempted by a huge chocolate brownie, wielded by a pair of mime artists. As it turned out, the brownie contained an extra “magic ingredient”, which cast a spell over the hapless innocent, causing her to see, say and do the strangest things. Not only did this provide a handy excuse for her more outrageous behaviour – it also had the effect of slapping a PG certificate on the more racy material, making this a show that even pre-teens could safely watch and enjoy.

The show climaxed with the “Big City Baker’s Ball” itself, during which a now blue-wigged Katy dragged excited audience members onto the stage for – appropriately enough – I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me). The anthemic Firework provided the emotional high-point of the night, and California Gurls formed the grand finale, as the beaming pop star – now in a skirt made entirely out of cupcakes, flanked by rows of dancing gingerbread men – hoofed and vamped at the front of the stage, lapping up our excitement with unabashed glee.

Katy Perry returns to the Arena on November 5th. If you’re a lover of high camp, glittering spectacle and noisy, catchy, brutally effective pop, you’d be daft to miss it.

Set list: Teenage Dream, Hummingbird Heartbeat, Waking Up In Vegas, Ur So Gay, Peacock, I Kissed A Girl, Circle The Drain, E.T., Who Am I Living For?, Pearl, Not Like The Movies, Only Girl (In the World), Big Pimpin’, Born This Way, Whip My Hair, Thinking Of You, Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground), Hot N Cold, Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.), I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), Firework, California Gurls.

Elbow – Nottingham Capital FM Arena, Thursday March 17

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on March 21, 2011

For Sue and John Hawkins – Block 8, Row R, perched high in a far-flung corner – Elbow’s first arena show in Nottingham proved to be a night to remember. Introducing Open Arms, the most anthemic and arena-friendly track on Elbow’s new album, Guy Garvey sought them out by name, block and row number, announcing that they were “officially further away from the stage than anyone else in the room”. And the name-checks didn’t stop there, either. During the course of Elbow’s two hour show, we were introduced to Craig – who had been spotted refusing to sing along when instructed – and to Sam and Sam, who had chosen to spend the evening before their wedding at an Elbow gig. (“Sam and Sam? That’s going to be confusing for your children. Oh, hang on, they’ll just call you Mum and Dad…”)

As well as these personal touches, other devices were used to create a sense of intimacy in the cavernous hall. Plenty of arena acts use central platforms linked by runways these days, but few front men make as much use of them as Garvey, who constantly strutted back and forth between the main stage and the middle of the room, shaking hands and accepting pats on the back. “I feel like Leslie Crowther”, he said at one point – and at times, there was something game-show host-like about his genial, witty patter.

“This band will have been together for twenty years in June”, Garvey announced, before wondering whether this would qualify them for entry onto Mr And Mrs (the TV quiz that tests married couples’ knowledge of each other). “Just because it’s something else we could win”, he quipped – then immediately apologised for his smugness. (“Pride comes before a fall, doesn’t it?”)

Part of Elbow’s charm rests on the fact that they never actively strove to become an arena act. Their breakthrough album, The Seldom Seen Kid, was conceived when the band were struggling, without even a recording contract. Its slow-building, word-of-mouth success was unexpected, and received with a profound gratitude that persists to this day. They didn’t thrust themselves upon us; we came to them.

Faced with the challenge of scaling up their live show, the band has risen to the occasion magnificently. Their songs fill the room, but the tenderness and grace of the material survives intact. The new album (Build A Rocket Boys!) deals with themes of childhood and nostalgia, and although less than two weeks old, the new songs displayed a stature that sat well with the more familiar numbers. The album’s epic first track The Birds opened the show, setting the standard high. Lippy Kids was delivered with arresting delicacy, and Neat Little Rows – as close to a grinding rocker as the band are prepared to get – was particularly effective. Its greasy-riffed counterpart from the previous album, Grounds For Divorce, was another highlight; surprisingly so, given that many of us had probably heard it a few times too many over the past three years. It offered a teasing glimpse of the noisy rock band that Elbow could easily have been, had they chosen to walk a different path.

For the final encore – the inevitable One Day Like This – Guy Garvey leapt from the stage, dashed through the main floor to the back of the hall, then clambered all the way up to Block 8, Row R, where he greeted a startled but beaming Sue and John Hawkins. The final few refrains of Elbow’s best known anthem were delivered from the worst seats in the house, Garvey’s arm draped over Sue’s shoulder. Man of the people, our Guy. Maybe one day like this a year would see all of us right.

Set list: The Birds, The Bones of You, Lippy Kids, Mirrorball, With Love, Neat Little Rows, The Night Will Always Win, Great Expectations, Grounds for Divorce, The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver, Puncture Repair, Some Riot, Weather To Fly, Open Arms, Starlings, Station Approach, One Day Like This.

Scissor Sisters, Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Tuesday December 14.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 15, 2010

Seven years ago this month, a barely known Scissor Sisters played what they came to regard as a pivotal gig at The Social, leaving all who witnessed it in little doubt that they were about to become very big indeed. A show at Rock City soon followed, and the band’s debut album went on to become the biggest seller of 2004. But by the time that the Sisters returned to town in November 2006, this time for a full scale arena show, there were signs that the band were suffering something of an identity crisis. Despite containing their biggest hit to date (I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’), their second album saw the band drifting perilously towards the middle of the road – and as a live act, they didn’t seem quite ready to scale up to the demands of a larger stage.

After a long period away from public view, made all the longer by the band’s decision to scrap their third album and start again from scratch, the Sisters re-emerged this year with Night Work: a collection of songs themed around clubbing, sex and partying hard. In many ways, it felt like the natural successor to their debut. More importantly, it also sounded like the work of a band that had rediscovered its sense of purpose.

As last night’s triumphant return to Nottingham’s largest venue demonstrated, the Sisters have also grown hugely in confidence and capability as an arena-sized act. This time around, Jake Shears and Ana Matronic truly owned the stage, making full use of the space and infecting us all with their sheer love of performing. Shears in particular has matured into a charismatic showman, fearlessly strutting in his skimpy fetish gear and milking us for all he was worth. And as always, Ana was his feisty foil, her banter as quick as ever. Dedicating She’s My Man to Kate Middleton, she observed that when it comes to the Royal Family, “it’s always the women who wear the trousers”. Introducing Paul McCartney (the song, not the Beatle), she commanded us to put down our phones and to “be in the moment, instead of living your life through your view finder”. (Those who failed to comply were duly treated to foul-mouthed reprimands.) And having spent so much time in this country over the years, she declared herself to be charmed by our use of language, singling out five words for special praise: loo, knackered, gurning, minging and Bristols. As well she might.

Tellingly, just four songs from Ta-Dah now remain in the band’s set list, compared to six from the debut album – and if you had ever grown tired of hearing well-worn numbers such as Laura and Take Your Mama, then you would have fallen in love with them all over again. Perhaps the players had also fallen in love with them again; it certainly seemed that way. As for the new songs, they seemed to accrue extra power in a live setting, suggesting that they had been conceived with arena-sized performances in mind. A prime example was Any Which Way, which sounded vastly better live than in its somewhat shrill recorded version.

Finishing their main set with Filthy/Gorgeous, the Sisters saved their show-stoppers for the encore. A magnificent Fire With Fire showed that it is still just about possible to rhyme “fire” with “desire”, without sounding hopelessly corny. During I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’, Jake leapt from the stage and bounded into the raised seating blocks, serenading us from the upper rows. Finally, the epic, mesmerising Invisible Light closed the show, Sir Ian McKellen reciting his dramatic, Thriller-style monologue on the video screens. It set the seal on a superb show – their best yet in this city, if truth be told – from a band that is once again operating at the peak of its powers.

Set list: Night Work , Laura, Any Which Way, She’s My Man, Something Like This, Tits On The Radio, Harder You Get, Running Out, Take Your Mama, Kiss You Off, Mary, Skin This Cat, Skin Tight, Paul McCartney, Comfortably Numb, Night Life, Filthy/Gorgeous, Fire With Fire, I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’, Invisible Light.

Rod Stewart – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Thursday May 20.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 25, 2010

“This is a nice little arena” said Rod Stewart approvingly, gazing out over his audience of ten thousand. “This is what we consider an intimate crowd”, he added, by way of explanation. But everything is relative, of course – and for a stadium artist of Rod’s stature, we must have seemed like quite a cosy bunch.

According to Rod, this was his first date in Nottingham since an appearance with the Jeff Beck group in 1967. This might have come as a surprise to anyone who enjoyed his last appearance at the Arena in 2002 – but who could expect a touring veteran of nearly fifty years’ standing to remember all the details?

After four platinum-selling Great American Songbook albums and a collection of rock classics, the 65 year-old superstar’s most recent release (Soulbook) has seen him return to the soul music which first inspired him. Just three cuts from the album were aired, including an energetic version of The O’Jays’ Love Train, which opened the show. These were joined by several more classic soul covers, including two numbers by Sam Cooke (Having A Party and Twistin’ The Night Away) which suited Stewart’s throaty upper register vocals particularly well. To complete the evening’s “soul revue” feel, a trio of excellent divas provided strong backing throughout.

Sixties classics aside, there was still plenty of room for the hits, which spanned from the early Seventies (the evergreen Maggie May) to the early Nineties (a well received Rhythm Of My Heart). The only slight disappointment was a rather lacklustre You Wear It Well, performed before Rod had fully warmed up (the old-timer was understandably pacing himself, holding some of his energies in reserve for later on), and before the initially muddy sound mix had been adjusted (things improved dramatically after the interval).

If the first few numbers were slightly under par, the turning point came after Rod’s first of several costume changes. Returning to the stage for Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, his tender, sincere rendition did Van Morrison’s song full justice. And for all his good-natured goofing and galumphing around during the rockers, perhaps it was on the ballads that his artistry shone the most. Handbags And Gladrags was a particular highlight, its distinctive opening bars greeted with gasps of delight, and by the time we reached The First Cut Is The Deepest and I Don’t Want To Talk About It, Rod had us eating out of the palm of his hand.

As the night wore on, everybody loosened up – as did Rod’s array of smart jackets and shirts, which never seemed to stay securely fastened for long. Supporters of his beloved Celtic FC threw a hat and a scarf onto the stage during You’re In My Heart, which was performed to a video montage of the team’s finest moments. Both were picked up and worn for a while. By the time we got to Hot Legs, Rod was kicking footballs into the crowd. One reached the back of the main floor; another touched one of the VIP boxes at the top; another went so high that it became stuck in the lighting rig. Not bad going, for a man who has just reached the official retirement age.

The two and a quarter hour show climaxed with an unexpectedly moving Sailing, demonstrating once again that Stewart knew when to rein in the showboating, in order to give the much loved anthem the respect it deserved – even after performing it literally thousands of times over the last thirty-five years. It was the mark of a true professional.

Hilariously, the curtains failed to open for the final encore of Baby Jane, leaving Rod and the band stranded and out of sight. Ever the trouper, he ushered his players through a narrow gap at the side of the stage, and corralled them into position in the one remaining strip at the front. It was an enjoyably chaotic end to a superb, memorable show from one of our true national treasures.

Set list:
Love Train, Tonight’s The Night, Some Guys Have All The Luck, You Wear It Well, Having A Party, This Old Heart Of Mine, Rhythm Of My Heart, You Keep Me Hanging On, Have I Told You Lately That I Love You, Handbags And Gladrags, Have You Ever Seen The Rain, Sweet Little Rock And Roller, Stay With Me, I Was Only Joking, It’s The Same Old Song, Rainy Night In Georgia, Twistin’ The Night Away, D’Ya Think I’m Sexy, Soul Finger, The First Cut Is The Deepest, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, You’re In My Heart, Hot Legs, Maggie May, Sailing, Baby Jane.

Rihanna, Pixie Lott – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Friday May 14.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 17, 2010

Other arena acts might pad out their line-ups with cheap-to-hire wannabes and never-will-bes – but for Rihanna, only the best will do. Supporting her on Friday night were two recently chart-topping acts: Tinie Tempah, who rapped his way through a well received four-song warm-up slot, and Pixie Lott, who performed a decent-sized set with a full band.

Pixie’s efficiently crafted, straight-down-the-line pop contained few surprises, other than an ill-advised Kings Of Leon/Killers medley which proved to be a stretch too far. A polished performer with an unshakeably sunny demeanour, she was at her strongest on the soulful, retro-tinged ballad Cry Me Out – but overall, she would have benefited from a little more loosening up and letting go.

Perhaps spurred on by Beyoncé’s ever more elaborate stage productions, Rihanna’s current “Last Girl On Earth” tour represents a major upgrade from the rather basic show that we saw in December 2007. This time around, we were treated to a daring, high-concept visual extravaganza, stuffed full to bursting with eye-catching tricks and surprises.

Rihanna began her show singing Russian Roulette on a rising hydraulic platform, the front of her dress flashing with computerised patterns of red light that resembled moving blood cells. At the climax of the song, a mock assassination was staged. As the shots rang out, the lights drained from the singer’s body.

Photo: Bob Thacker for Nottingham PostSeconds later, she reappeared in a flesh coloured swimsuit dress, cut as high around the thighs as decency would allow, cavorting with a troupe of bare-chested male dancers in spiked Prussian army helmets, while images of giant hand grenades flashed up on the screens behind. The action moved across the stage to a pink armoured tank. Donning a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, Rihanna straddled its cannon, which proceeded to fire glitter bombs into the audience. And we were still only two songs into the set.

During the third number (Shut Up And Drive), breakdancing crash test dummies tumbled over an army truck that had appeared from nowhere at the end of a specially constructed spur stage. By the end of the song, Rihanna, her dancers and a member of the audience were attacking the truck with baseball bats. And all of this was before the entrance of the Mad Max-style creatures on giant stilts… yes, it was that kind of show.

At times, this constant barrage of gimmicks did rather overwhelm the music – but at other times, the madness would subside, allowing Rihanna the space to deliver a tender, affecting ballad such as Unfaithful to a hushed crowd.

Compared to the unassuming R&B starlet of two and a half years ago, Rihanna has undergone a remarkable transformation, emerging from last year’s well-documented bust-up with Chris Brown as a stronger, tougher, seemingly invincible character who has assumed full artistic control over every aspect of her work. But you couldn’t help wondering whether, by transforming herself from smiling girl-next-door to imperious Amazonian warrior princess, and by adding so much distracting stage trickery and visual flim-flam, she was subconsciously surrounding herself with extra layers of protective distance. Yes, the technical brilliance of it all was vastly entertaining – not to mention great value for money – but perhaps next time, a little more of the human touch wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Set list – Rihanna.
Russian Roulette
Shut Up And Drive
Fire Bomb
Rockstar 101
Rude Boy
Hate That I Love You
Stupid In Love
Te Amo
Don’t Stop The Music
Breakin’ Dishes / The Glamorous Life
Let Me
Take A Bow
Wait Your Turn
Live Your Life
Run This Town

Set list – Pixie Lott.
Turn It Up
Band Aid
My Love
Boys & Girls
Nothing Compares
Here We Go Again
Use Somebody / When You Were Young
Cry Me Out
Mama Do (Uh Oh, Uh Oh)

Whitney Houston – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Thursday April 14.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 19, 2010

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.

In this age of instant opinion, where anyone’s hastily typed thoughts can be accessed by the whole world within seconds, it’s difficult to know who to trust. This holds especially true when the subject under discussion is the comeback tour by a major star, re-entering the public arena after many years of well-documented personal anguish.

So do we trust Whitney Houston’s diehard fans, who are all too ready to excuse every fault? (“If you want the Whitney of twenty years ago, buy a CD” fumed one supporter, angrily reacting to mixed reviews of Whitney’s first British show in eleven years, just two nights ago.) Or do we listen to widely read gossip websites such as Holy Moly, who pronounced her Birmingham show “a disaster”? (“It was a resounding, unadulterated success in the same way that the Titanic’s maiden voyage was a success”, they sneered.)

If you had witnessed last night’s astonishing performance at the Trent FM Arena, then you might have found it hard to have much sympathy with the cynics. For contrary to many people’s expectations, Whitney Houston delivered a powerful, passionate performance to a crowd that was overwhelmingly on her side.

For the first forty minutes of the show, which were dominated by tracks from her recent album I Look To You, the 46 year old star was on almost flawless form – unless you count a fluffed introduction to one of the older songs. (“Let me take you back to nineteen… I don’t know!” she giggled.) That aside, she hit every note, navigating every rhythmic twist and turn with assured dexterity, and maintaining a commanding stage presence. A slightly ragged My Love Is Your Love was saved by an emotionally charged final section, which saw Whitney obsessively repeating the phrase “Are you with me?” with ever-increasing intensity.

“I have no tricks – I hope you can handle that”, she told us, pointing to the simple stage set-up behind her. “I have no costumes, I have no drag”, she announced – although this didn’t stop her from disappearing for a costume change that lasted nearly twelve minutes, while the backing singers (including Whitney’s brother Gary) performed in her absence. “You take your time, Whitney!” joked the fans at the front, as she announced her departure.

The second half of the show began with a lengthy acoustic section. Grouped together at the front of the stage, the musicians clustered around the seated singer, who began with an emotional tribute to Michael Jackson. (“He was my friend. I called him Michael. And he called me Whitney!”)

From this point onwards, the eccentricities began to emerge. Saving All My Love For You was interrupted for a conversation with a woman in the front row, who expressed her admiration for Whitney’s shoes. The shoes were examined at some length, as Whitney bent over and began to stroke her ankles. The song resumed, only to stall again at the sight of two punters returning to their seats. (“I see you got beer!” made for an interesting lyrical addition.)

Interruptions over, the singer became ever more immersed in her performance. Scarcely registering our presence, she picked at a loose thread on her sequinned frock, while taking ever bolder risks with her interpretations – improvising, freestyling, playing with melodies and rhythms, and turning the cavernous arena into an intimate cabaret club.

As the show approached its climax, the old Eighties dance hits were finally given an airing. I Wanna Dance With Somebody and How Will I Know got the crowd dancing, singing and clapping along – but the star herself seemed almost disinterested in this lighter, poppier material, leaving the choruses of both songs to her backing singers. Or was this simply a case of exhaustion beginning to take its toll?

If so, then perhaps this would explain the bizarre rendition of I Will Always Love You that closed the main set. As with the earlier acoustic section, Whitney attempted to play daring games with her best known vocal performance – but by this time, the cracks were starting to show. The song needed discipline and control, rather than silly false endings and awkwardly botched notes.

Nevertheless, all the high notes were hit – even if we had to wait an eternity for some of them, while Whitney turned her back, fiddled with her hair and costume, and generally pantomimed the role of the nervous, trembling diva, girding herself for one last onslaught. Meanwhile, none of this stopped the crowd from roaring their encouragement throughout the song, willing their idol to last the course and finish the job.

Perhaps the outraged fan had got it right after all. If all you want is the Whitney of twenty years ago – the remote, somewhat bland superstar, obediently playing her role – then perhaps you should stick with those old CDs. But if you would rather have the Whitney of 2010 – flawed at times, but freed from her demons and calling her own tune, in her own unique way – then last night’s show would have sent you home beaming with delight, and thoroughly entertained.

Set list:
For the Lovers
Nothin’ But Love
I Look to You
My Love Is Your Love
Like I Never Left
It’s Not Right But It’s Okay
For the Love of You (performed by Gary Houston)
Queen of the Night (performed by backing vocalists)
A Song For You
Saving All My Love For You
Greatest Love of All
All At Once
I Learned from the Best
Step By Step
I Love the Lord
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
How Will I Know
I Will Always Love You
Million Dollar Bill

Arctic Monkeys – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday November 22.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on November 23, 2009

Two nights on from Beyoncé’s dazzling, effects-laden extravaganza, it was time for the diametric opposite: a frill-free, no-nonsense, back-to-basics rock gig, from another act at the top of their game. In contrast to the R&B star’s numerous declarations of love, a taciturn Alex Turner offered not much more than a couple of gruff checks that we were “all right, Nottingham?” Formalities dispensed with, he kept his head down and got on with the show.

The simple but effective lighting bathed the band in strong, single colours, alternating between scarlet, turquoise, orange and mauve. The colour scheme was echoed by the screens on either side at the stage, which relayed shadowy, film-like images of the individual band members, silhouetted in tinted monochromes.

Obscured behind shaggy, shoulder-length, centre-parted curtains of hair, the three-man front line – Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook and bassist Nick O’Malley – matched each other for unreadable inscrutability, rumbling and twanging their way through the set with impressive cohesion and control. More storyteller than showman, Turner casts himself as one of life’s observers: the quiet kid in the corner with the notepad on his lap, taking it all in with a quizzical eye, and relaying it back with a snappy, sardonic turn of phrase.

Four years ago, the Monkeys exploded onto the scene, grabbing everyone’s attention with two chart-topping singles and a debut album that was hailed as an instant classic. Three albums down the line, they’ve toned down some of that early precociousness, settling into a comfortable – and some might say conservative – niche. Their newest songs might lack the instantly anthemic qualities of the older hits, but you sense that Turner and his band are in it for the long haul: sturdy, dependable reliables, with a loyal fanbase who have learnt every word off by heart.

Notably more subdued during an extended stretch of lesser-known album tracks, the crowd burst back into life for a rip-roaring rattle through When The Sun Goes Down. An explosion of translucent ticker-tape then brought the main set to an unexpectedly showy conclusion. (Perhaps Ms Knowles had left a box or two behind on Friday night?) It was the one nod to spectacle, at the end of a curiously austere and uninvolving performance. The sweaty moshers down the front might have gone home happy – but for the stranded souls towards the rear, who strained to make sense of the blurred visuals and the muddy sound, the verdict seemed altogether less clear.

Set list:
Dance Little Liar
This House Is A Circus
Still Take You Home
I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor
Poison Approaching
My Propeller
Crying Lightning
The View From The Afternoon
If You Were There, Beware
Pretty Visitors
The Jeweller’s Hands
Do Me A Favour
When The Sun Goes Down
Secret Door
Fluorescent Adolescent / Mardy Bum

Lionel Richie – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Monday March 30.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2009

Lionel Richie doesn’t exactly shy away from the superlatives. “I’m having the best night of my life, right here on this stage tonight!” he exclaimed, just before the encore – and given his seemingly boundless enthusiasm, which never flagged for a second during last night’s epic 24-song set, we could almost believe him.

Displaying all the hyped-up energy of a man half his age, the 59-year old Richie was in no danger of resting on his laurels. His sheer love of performing radiated from every sweat-soaked pore, and his easy, unforced charisma proved instantly infectious with his adoring audience. By the fourth number – a gracious and delightful rendition of Penny Lover from the career-defining Can’t Slow Down album – happy couples were swaying contentedly in the aisles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders.

Lionel’s strongest suit is the love song, and his most successful love songs – Truly, Stuck On You, Endless Love – are unashamedly romantic celebrations of strong, committed and lasting unions. You hear them as first dances at weddings, or as anniversary dedications on the radio. They don’t seek to say anything particularly new, and some of them teeter on the brink of downright corniness – but when you witness the reactions that they provoke amongst the faithful, it’s hard to remain cynical for long. Even the corniest of them all – the evergreen Three Times A Lady and the deathless Hello – had the ring of sincerity about them. For that’s Lionel’s art: to turn age-old sentiments into universal truths, and to make even the most over-used rhymes sound as if they had never been written before.

As for the more uptempo numbers – of which there were plenty – the musical emphasis leant more towards rock than funk. A pounding Running With The Night played to all the strengths of the five-piece band, and an extended Dancing On The Ceiling closed the main set in storming fashion, raising cheers as it dropped briefly into the opening bars of Van Halen’s Jump.

Surprisingly, there was just one selection from the newly released Just Go album: a duet with contemporary R&B superstar Akon, whose contribution was relayed from the giant video screens above the stage. Perhaps it wouldn’t have hurt to plug the new material a little harder. But then again, we were there to hear the classics – and from the opening Easy to the final All Night Long, the irrepressible, irresistible and hugely likeable Lionel Richie made it his business to give us all that we could possibly want.

Set list:
All Around The World
Just Go
Penny Lover
Just For You
Stuck On You
Tender Heart
Ballerina Girl
Running With The Night
Say You Say Me
Wandering Stranger
Lady (You Bring Me Up)
Brick House
Three Times A Lady
Sail On
Dancing On The Ceiling
Endless Love
Don’t Stop The Music
My Destiny
All Night Long (All Night)

Kaiser Chiefs, Black Kids, Esser – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 22.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 23, 2009

If so-called “wonky pop” is a genre which we’re going to have to start taking seriously, then at least Esser makes a better fist of it than most of 2009’s crop of eager young hopefuls. (You know the ones: all shiny new record contracts, “directional” hairdos and over-zealous image consultants.) Stylistically, he was all over the place, cheerfully plundering anything that took his fancy from pop’s last three decades. Performance-wise, he didn’t let the crowd’s polite indifference stand in the way of putting on a confident, mostly convincing show.

Following appearances at the Rescue Rooms in June and Trent University in October, Black Kids found themselves in town for a third time, on their biggest stage yet. Although not exactly a natural arena act, their set scaled up better than might have been expected – especially given the rough edges that were on display just a few months ago. A little more variety in tone and pace would have served them well, but it’s still relatively early days for this cheerful and likeable band, whose well-executed indie-pop did a fine job of warming the arena up for the main attraction.

Given the disappointing performance of their third album, and the complete commercial failure of their last single, you might expect the Kaiser Chiefs to be feeling the strain by now. But when it comes to staging a crowd-pleasing show in a major venue, their status as one of this country’s most popular and effective live acts remains unassailable.

Bounding onto the stage in a haze of thick smoke, singer Ricky Wilson began his performance at full tilt, and barely dropped it down a notch for the full ninety minutes. A series of little posing platforms had been placed around the front and the sides of the stage, allowing him to give full expression to his exhibitionist urges. Occasionally, he would scale one of the lighting rigs, in order to dangle precariously above the capacity crowd. Towards the end of the main set, he darted into the wings and re-emerged moments later at the rear of the hall, perched on a slightly larger platform and bellowing his key message: “We are the Kaiser Chiefs!”

For while their detractors might find them smug and shallow, the whole essence of the Kaiser Chiefs is optimistic, celebratory, inclusive – and yes, unashamedly self-glorifying. Their songs might be peppered with clever lyrical twists here and there – but when all’s said and done, they’re not exactly the deepest songs in the world. Indeed, many of their most popular numbers – Ruby, Never Miss A Beat, Oh My God – scarcely seem to be about anything at all, barring a vague cynicism about the hollowness of modern life which sometimes teeters on the brink of outright sneering. As such, they make perfect anthems for 10,000 eager souls to roar along to – stabbing their fists in the air and having the time of their lives, but without ever needing to engage with the music on a deeper emotional level.

Subtle as a flying mallet they may be, but the Kaiser Chiefs – and the excitable Mr. Wilson in particular – are masters of giving their followers exactly what they want: punchy stadium anthems, delivered with precision and panache. Depending on your point of view, last night’s show was either a headache-inducing pantomime of empty gestures, or a belting, barn-storming and brilliant night out.

Set list:
Spanish Metal
Every Day I Love You Less And Less
Everything Is Average Nowadays
Heat Dies Down
You Want History
Saturday Night
Good Days Bad Days
Na Na Na Na Naa
Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)
Like It Too Much
Modern Way
Half The Truth
Never Miss A Beat
I Predict A Riot
Take My Temperature
The Angry Mob

Tomato In The Rain
Thank You Very Much
Oh My God

Keane – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Sunday February 1st.

Posted in Capital FM Arena, gigs, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 2, 2009

According to Oscar Wilde, “being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know”. But where countless identikit indie bands strive unconvincingly to maintain their artful “we’re just like you” anti-images, Keane’s uncontrived ordinariness sits at the heart of who they are and what they do. More than most stadium-level acts of their generation, they have succeeded in minimising the gap between band and audience. Sure, singer Tom Chaplin might have busted out a few rockstar moves – but there was nothing aloof or remote about his sweaty antics, and the unselfconscious way he urged us to get on our feet and show our enthusiasm.

For those who like their stars to act like stars, Keane’s basic lack of charisma will always be a turn-off. They have been called bland, boring, the musical equivalent of beige. But for those who love the band’s music, and who find their own emotions reflected back at them by keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley’s yearning, heartfelt lyrics, the critics couldn’t be more wrong.

Chaplin’s vocals are perhaps his band’s greatest asset. Clear, resonant and pitch-perfect, he rode the soaring melodies with a chorister’s precision. Behind him, Rice-Oxley’s pounding keyboards dominated the sound as ever, fleshed out by unofficial fourth member Jesse Quin’s bass guitar. From time to time, Chaplin picked up a guitar or provided additional keyboards – but the simpler, stripped-down arrangements remained the most successful.

With all but two tracks from current album Perfect Symmetry getting an airing, the band worked hard to showcase their new material in the best possible light. But while the anthemic title track played to all their strengths, other more adventurous excursions – the Bowie-esque Better Than This, the skittering electronics of You Haven’t Told Me Anything – gave the impression of a band struggling valiantly to move forward, but in danger of burying the qualities that made them so popular in the first place.

Set list:
The Lovers Are Losing
Bend And Break
Everybody’s Changing
Again And Again
Better Than This
A Bad Dream
This Is The Last Time
Try Again
Snowed Under
The River
You Haven’t Told Me Anything
Leaving So Soon?
You Don’t See Me
Perfect Symmetry
Somewhere Only We Know
Crystal Ball

Playing Along (Tom solo)
Black Burning Heart
Is It Any Wonder?