Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Point Of It All

Tuesday 11th April, 2006
The Point Depot, Dublin

Green laser lights fan and crisscross across a black stage, the cloying taste of artificial smoke infuses the air, you can almost taste hormones. The buzz is incredible. An entire audience waiting, watching… screaming. You can’t sit still, you have to move, at least shuffle your feet but more likely bounce in your seat, yelling nonsense at the top of your lungs, just so you can compete with the rest of the crowd. An orgy of sweat and exhilaration surrounds you, heightening as four black shapes begin to descend, breaking through the green flashing lights. Your heart beats dangerously fast, but there’s no way you’re going to faint. Not here. Not now. Not when you’ve finally made it.

Welcome to my very first Westlife concert. Two simultaneous jobs, hours of hard work, and ten thousand dollars later, and I’ve finally made it. After four years of desperate longing, I’m here, standing in a Dublin arena, on Westlife’s home turf. I’m seeing it. Westlife are on tour and I’m here, part of the sweaty, screaming masses, my heart in my mouth.

The dark shapes keep descending, standing on black, square platforms hanging from the ceiling, swaying slightly to a dense Celtic pulse. Smoke blocks them, then highlights them as brilliant white light reflects against their brilliant white outfits. All slightly different according to personal taste, the white clothes glow in the light, illuminating their faces, enormous smiles painting their expressions. Shane lifts the microphone to his mouth, and then… “Everybody’s looking for that something…” The crowd goes wild. The screaming merges into lyrics, a 10,000 strong choir screaming Shane’s own words back at him. I can’t feel my own body, I’m so outrageously overwhelmed. A tear builds in my eye and almost slides down my cheek, but I hold it. In this moment there’s nothing else but them, staring back out at the crowd. I won’t cry. I’ll just watch and sing and absorb as much as I can. But as Mark’s voice takes over, I let the tear go. There’s no way I can hold it this time, not when Mark is grinning at the audience, his face clear even from the third back row (thank god for small arenas). I’m hearing his voice for real, for only the second time in my life. It’s the moment of a lifetime.

Flying Without Wings finally fades away. I can’t breathe. There’s no time to breathe because they’re already screaming their way into Hit You With The Real Thing. The throbbing, pulsating rhythm is electric. Pyrotechnics burst from the stage: fireworks and clouds of smoke light the arena, flickering off the rolling waves of arms and heads, all upturned and reaching for the four lads dancing back and forth across stage, their legs moving like lightning. Kian’s voice rocks the arena, his rasping echoes sending chills up my spine and trembling over my skin. The song is over too fast, I want it to go on forever. The screaming is louder, and louder. Shane smiles and comes to the front of the stage while the others fade slightly into the background. He welcomes us and thanks us for coming, then introduces the next song. It’s ‘Amazing’. We scream as loud as we can. Because, hey, it’s SHANE!

Shock, horror, the dance is still the same from the television promotion. Or should I say ‘choreographed movement.’ You’d never call it dance, but it’s surprisingly sweet. The Westlife lads slide back and forth around the stage and around each other, laughing and smiling as they pass. Shane puts his hand on Mark’s shoulder when they trade positions, acknowledging grins on both their faces. The song fills the arena, Kian’s sweet voice and Nicky’s husky rasp drawing more screams than anyone. It’s magic. Absolute magic. I still can’t breathe, and I won’t get the chance yet. Not now that When You’re Looking Like That is just warming up.

The audience is screaming in recognition the moment the electric guitar cuts in to belt out the opening notes. Westlife get right back into their dance routines, skipping gracefully through every step, the sexiness of the movement undeniable. Shane does every girl there proud, his cheeky grin an absolute tease while he suggestively screams the lyrics, bouding and dashing about the stage. Kian takes over in the second verse, rocking it to its core, and then Mark. He hits every note flawlessly, a look of absolute concentration painting his face. And then a pause. They freeze solid in various poses, Nicky’s elbow drawn sideways, hand beneath his chin; Mark’s fists clench by his sides. A breakdancing figure cuts across the giant video screens above them, illuminated in red. He spins and jerks, his naked chest glistening with sweat while the lads stand frozen beneath him, bathed in a haunting scarlet glow. Shane smirks as he finishes and the lights return to normal, bursting into the final chorus. We all stop for a moment as the lights fade, catching our breath. My fellow Aussie travelling companions gasp and scream beside me, but I can barely hear them, soaring on a rush of musical ecstasy. This is worth it. This is so worth it.

Mariah Carey appears! Just kidding. A pre-recorded image of Mariah Carey appears, smiling serenely and looking five years younger. She is five years younger, looking out at us from the huge screens framing the stage, the images from the Against All Odds clip flickering over our faces as Westlife appear beneath her, waving and smiling. Shane opens the verse, his voice resonating clear above our frenzied shrieking. He finishes and turns the microphone to us… We sing with none of the ability of Mariah Carey, but with ten times the excitement and volume. Mark belts through his verse and we join him unharmoniously, our shrieking notes filling the arena while we attempt to mimic Mariah. But he laughs and nods anyway, acknowledging our excitement. The song draws to a close. Then Mariah is replaced with Diana Ross, her gold dress sparking from the screens with a sequined glow. We perform When You Tell Me That You Love Me, fans and Westlife together. Westlife shine in their verses and we gleefully drown Diana out, sure that our voices are much more important than hers. We’re here after all, and where’s she?

They dash off stage, giving us a few breathless moments to tidy ourselves up. My hair is sticking to my forehead, my breath coming in short, sharp gasps. I want to keep screaming, but my voice is already raw and I’ll need it for later. I squirm in my seat, already waiting for the next song. The screens descend lower, sitting inches above the stage. They light up red. Four familiar silhouettes appear black against the screens, their legs already bobbing slightly to the familiar beat pulsing from the speakers. An extended intro that sounds very much like Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean! They bob, then thrust, their hats tilted stylishly over their foreheads. They mimic the trademark Jacko moves perfectly, jerking and moonwalking, stabbing their arms and legs into the air at impossible angles. They touch their hats, they spin, and then they begin to sink, lower and lower, hands touching the floor, Nicky’s silhouette almost sinking into the splits until…

The real Westlife pop up from underneath the stage! Their pre-recorded likenesses meld into the figures of very well built young ladies, and the lads take over, the beat of Billie Jean melding easily into the thrusting, untamed thrashing of She’s Back. They keep the dance moves, thrusting their hips Jackson-style, flipping their hats over by the brim and sliding them along their arms, the left hand clad in a sequined silver glove. Keeping with the Jackson theme, the song merges between She’s Back and Billie Jean over and over again. But of course it can’t stop there, not when the audience is this worked up. Directing penetrating pouts at the audience, the gloves come off finger by finger and are throw down on the stage. The jacket is next, coming off with an effortless shake of the arms, their backs suddenly presented in tight t-shirts to the audience. Then… surely not! Hands flicking and sliding at flies, they smirk, turn away, and suddenly there are four waving pairs of Westlife bums clad in very nice tight boxer shorts. Some girls probably faint, but I don’t. I’m too transfixed. Sure, it’s PG, but as Westlife yank their trousers back up and run off stage, I feel like I’ve just been privy to the raciest striptease imaginable.

Once the song is finished, and after a quick dash round the back, Westlife are again revealed, this time in top hats and tails, canes slung over their shoulders. “Oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh…” they sing, and bloody hell, they’re already rocking Uptown Girl. Toned down into a swinging Rat Pack style, the lads swagger and strut about the stage, canes twirling like batons. Shane has a suitably satisfied smirk creasing his face the whole time, and it’s no wonder because the crowd are going mad. I’m going mad. The whole world’s going mad! And now I can’t even hear my own voice because it’s raw and everyone else is screaming so loud. But that’s no reason to stop screaming. You wouldn’t even think it, not with what comes next.

“You might as well face it, you’re addicted to…” Well, “Westlife”, but the correct ending to that one is “love.” Yep, here’s the medley. A staple of every tour, this year the lads have pulled out all the stops to make this the most memorable yet! Not content with the usual run of songs from the pre-90s, this one draws from all decades. Starting with the sexy growling tune of Addicted To Love, Kian and Nicky strut their stuff happily, kneeling in front of the audience, shaking their arses, and happily flaunting themselves to the whole crowd. Stevie Wonder’s I Wish comes next, Shane moving exquisitely well into every step while the others follow him. It morphs into Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, Mark taking over to shriek out a real whopper of a solo. But here’s the big surprise! Handing his microphone to Nicky, Shane steps into the middle of the stage, wiggling his arse while the others pretend to spank him. The crowd goes mad. And then, he does the most acrobatic thing ever seen in a Westlife concert: with a huge grin, he flips himself straight up into a handstand, bouncing on his palms, head almost whacking the floor as the others continue to cheer around him! Dropping back down, he turns to grin again, watching every fan melt into a pile of steaming hormonal goo.

They dash into the unlit rear of the stage and perform the quickest change imaginal into more casual clothes, then run back onstage. Except… there’s only three of them! Someone’s missing! A concentrated peer into the rear of the stage reveals Mark, still struggling to wrench his t-shirt down his back. But by the time he manages to get back on stage, the shirt itself is worth it. More flamboyant and extravagant than the others’, it’s a bright, solid red, emblazoned with glitter-paint peace signs. The crowd goes mad, and it’s just as he dashes onstage that a recognisable tune begins to pick itself out. Nicky introduces the next song of the medley.

“Alright!” he shouts. “This side of the arena, you’re with me and Shane! That side, you’ve got Kian and Mark, alright? I know you know the song, so sing along, alright? Here we go…”

“It feels like something’s heating up, can I leave with you?”

The left side screams back: “I don’t know what I’m thinking of, really leaving with you!” It’s a massive rush, and as Mark and Kian lift their microphones, I’m glad I’ve got some voice left for this one. Senorita is a massive buzz, the audience responding with utter delight as the call passes back and forth from member to member, every scream louder than the last until the whole audience is chanting together, the lads obviously as high on the excitement as we are. And then…

I’d like to admit something right here. I’ve always despised the Pussycat Dolls' Dontcha with a passion. But now I’ll never be able to hear it without smiling. Not when I think of Mark and Kian’s sexy opening croon, bent down to the audience. Not when I think of the quick-stepping swaggers. And certainly not when I think of those hip thrusts. Every ten year old girl in the audience has just been given a massive kick towards puberty, the sexual tension in the room suddenly electric. “Dontcha wish your boyfriend was hot like me…?” is suddenly the biggest hit of the night. They’ve got a lot to live up to for next year’s medley!

Next the lads change into their trademark suits. Luckily, these are the first suits of the night and are happily individualised. With Shane in gold, Nicky in silver, Mark in black, and Kian in blue, they look fantastically comfortable as they move into the next song of the night: Colour My World. A kaleidoscopic chandelier appears on each of the screens, turning and flickering as Shane bursts into the opening verse. Everything about this performance is a standout. The new song choice is excellent, and prevents the show becoming another Greatest Hits. As the song progresses into its final verse, the lads swaying cheerfully beneath the massive screens, the image blends away from the chandelier and into a neon-lit gospel choir, clapping and crooning in the background, lifting the song off the ground in a frenzy of joy.

The gospel choir hang around for concert classic Hey Whatever, infusing it with a clapping, cheering rhythm. Girls scream their voices even rawer than before when Mark hits the bridge, the soul-inspired moment exceptionally exciting. Every moment rocks, and rocks, and rocks, but like all the best songs tonight it’s over far too quickly, leaving us cheering for more.
And more is what we get. They cluster together in the centre of the stage, a microphone stand each. Mark steps forward.

“So, who wants to hear a song off our next album?” The crowd goes wild. Mark smirks. “Oh come on… who wants to hear a song off our next album?!” The crowd amps it up a notch, trying desperately to make the laughing, sneering boy believe that yes, we do want to hear a song of their next album, alright?! “Alright, that’s better.” He shrugs. “This song hasn’t even been recorded yet, so… it’s a little bit of an exclusive thing for all you guys, so I hope you enjoy it. You can tell us how you feel about it afterwards. This song is called… The Dance.”

A strange thing happens. The sound dies down. People stop screaming as soon as Shane’s voice echoes across the arena. There’s murmuring, people that know the Garth Brooks original sing along, but the frenzied screaming of earlier dies down. The audience knows this is an important moment for them… we are hearing a new Westlife song for the very first time. It’s utterly perfect, a reassurance that with material like this, Westlife will be around for a very long time yet. Shane’s vocals work supremely well, and Mark’s reworking of the second verse is incredible. Kian and Nicky, as usual, sing harmonies, but the country feel of the song works to their advantage, allowing them more presence than they would have on a different style of song. It’s magic.

Moving away from the new, we backtrack to the old. First single Swear It Again is next, a show stealer as always. Of the four screens perched above the stage, the two on the ends descend, framing Westlife, who are gathered together on the stairs at the middle, lounging and chatting together during the other’s parts. Nicky and Mark are the biggest culprits of this, looking like they’re having a quality gasbag while Shane is working through the first verse. It’s somehow comforting, though; cosy and relaxing. Always a standout, and a standout again.

Seasons In The Sun hasn’t been done since the 2001 tour, so it’s a complete surprise when the familiar intro appears. Kian does his verse with great pride, and the crowd is accordingly excited. But there’s a big question in every fan’s mind. Who will take over Bryan’s part?

It’s Nicky! The audience’s screams nearly drown him out for a moment, but he rises above it all, singing at the top of his voice, a genuinely pleased smile on his face. The other's sing their parts, but when it's Nicky's turn again, the scream is louder than before. In this moment, that man is god.

A recorded shower of fireworks trickles down the giant video screens to the tune of Mandy. A tour standard, it’s done the same as ever, with powerhouse vocals and multi-layered harmonies. They don’t quite manage to outperform the old ‘Bryan’ version, but they do it decently well. The second verse ends, and they pause, taking a brief moment to thank their families, their musicians, the crew, management, and of course… us! My breath has failed me again. This is goodbye! This is the end!

In the back of my mind, of course I know it’s not. Predictable as ever, Westlife launch into another song. They thump out World Of Our Own with screaming enthusiasm as the fans pulse and shriek beneath them, once again reaching out for their idols, wanting to keep them as long as possible. They finish the song. The lights go down… and then they don’t come back on again. The music keeps going, there’s still more cheering and screaming. We laugh at the few people who stand up to leave – they are obviously not seasoned Westlife fans. We all know what comes next.

A chant starts up, the music dying away but the lights not coming back on. “We want more!” We scream. “We want more! We want more!” The whole arena is rippling with it, as people begin to stomp their feet, clap their hands. We demand more. We need it. And we’re going to get it, no matter what.

The four screens suddenly burst back to life, and the chant morphs into a hysterical mass yell. Waves break and crash above the stage, darkly lit by a starry sky, and then Westlife appear in a smoky haze, dressed in nautically inspired white suits. The waves are traded for four enormous black funnels (peculiarly reminiscent of a certain doomed ship that I can’t identify for copyright reasons), and the Celtic pipes slowly transform into the opening notes of Queen Of My Heart. We are transfixed. This is a Bryan song. What the hell are they doing?

Well, they’re actually giving Kian and Nicky a go at singing something for a change. Replacing the bulk of Bryan’s lyrics with Kian and including a little Nicky interlude is a fantastic decision and one of the high points of the night. They sing every note perfectly, and the cheer each receives on finishing his part is tremendous. As the whole crowd sways to the beautiful lilting music together, I’m well aware that the show is coming to an end and am trying to imprint every last moment on my mind. After these three shows I may never experience the likes of this again, not in real life.

They can’t go a whole concert without What Makes A Man, and true to form it is the second last song of the night. Nicky makes a jibe about Bob the Builder, and they launch into it, Shane and Mark singing every note with sterling passion and emotion, Mark’s face a mask of concentration. Shane finishes it with his trademark rendition, pausing before the final word, and then punching it out with fantastic power. The stage goes dark again, we all hang our heads. But hey, there’s a song they haven’t performed yet, and they have to, don’t they? It’s in the rules!

They appear back onstage, the ethereal piano beat starts up again, and they introduce the final song... You Raise Me Up. Shane’s voice murmurs over the emotional crowd. There are a few sobs and screams, but most of the audience sings, their voices rising up to almost match Shane’s in volume. He notices, and turns the microphone to us, letting us sing a few lines. It’s intoxicating, the reaction. This is a song that has obviously touched thousands, and as every single person sings, I can feel the emotion swell in my heart, bringing tears to my eyes. They slide down my cheeks. I don’t want to cry properly, I can’t take my eyes off the stage for a single second, but my eyes film with tears anyway. Fireworks burst on the stage. The song ends, they thank us again, and then disappear.

The music dies away. The house lights go up. Everyone is smiling, cheering, and crying.

I head for the merchandise stand…

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