Strutting across the stage, using his mic stand as a stand-in hard-on, he was as magnetic as Knebworth 2003. Garish sequin vest shimmering, signature wild eyes popping, well-defined bicep pulsing – and that’s before you get to the cheeky grin and gobshite attitude that had me, and every woman and gay man in the room, whooping our lungs out. No, this isn’t the Robbie Williams we’re watching, it’s Robbie impersonator Dan Budd. But honestly, it barely mattered.
I’m reliving this moment – the time I went to a Take That tribute gig – as the world is blessed with a new four-part documentary on Netflix called, simply, Robbie Williams. Spanning 30 years of BTS footage, from the 16-year-old Stoke-on-Trent boy in Take That to a struggling addict having on-stage breakdowns in his 30s, it’s a British drink, drugs and rock’n’roll tale told by 49-year-old Williams, who mostly appears in his undies from his LA mansion bed.
Williams has been ripe for a renaissance – a Rob-naissance, if you will – for some time, given the general Y2K revival and current hysteria over 00s icons (see: Beckham and his recent Netflix doc). I, for one, am bloody here for it. But nobody needs another analysis of why Robbie – despite the has-been appearance – is of the moment. Instead, I’d like to tell you about the closest I got to Williams, by way of a Robbie Williams impersonator in Manchester earlier this year. Because if you want to know about angels, the best way to understand their appeal is through their disciples.
It was a cheap and cheerful family night out for Easter – how Jesus would’ve wanted us to celebrate, I’m sure. I rock up with my mum, stepdad, step-grandma (Nanny Sue, total sweetheart), my boyfriend and some family friends. I’m here on a “why not?” basis. I wouldn’t call myself a proper Take That fan exactly, but I know most of the words and have been taken to a few real shows over the years by mum. She’s been checking in with me for weeks to make sure I’m not backing out, worrying I think I’m “too cool” for it.
The venue is 53two, an arts centre under disused railway arches, the Mancunian modern classic (i.e. exposed brick everywhere and an unshakeable smell of damp). After we’ve milled around getting drinks, the doors to the main room open and there’s a dash for a good spot, which – with this late middle-aged crowd – is one of the seats a way off from the stage. I’d say there’s about 100 people here, including a group in a cordoned off VIP-looking area at the back which turns out to be reserved for a 60th or 70th birthday party. Shelagh – the birthday girl in question – has a grey bob, is wearing her best sparkly top and has a big crew of mates wearing special wristbands and eating snacks.
When Take That come on stage, everyone in my group exchanges a few wary glances. My mum thinks they all look like Take That’s actual dads, but I don’t think she realises how old the real Take That actually are (or she is) now. Well, Mark Owen is pretty accurate, with a similar cheeky face and that signature silly hat helps. Gary Barlow is a bit more like a bad impressionist, waxing lyrical in the Barlow drawl. Jason Orange looks absolutely nothing like Jason Orange. He’s the youngest by a mile off, looking like he’s just hopped off the set of Hollyoaks and filled in last minute – haplessly bobbing around on the far right, occasionally fist bumping the crowd. Howard is, um, a bit of a state. He looks like he’s gone through a really messy divorce and has been sleeping in a motel. In family friend Steph’s words: “He looks like he’s been dug up.”
This lot are the real deal, I’m told. They’re even known as the official Take That tribute – appearing on Graham Norton that week and praised by the real Gary Barlow. But their performance is still not quite there yet – until Robbie arrives, that is.
He bounces on stage with the aura of an energetic man-child and the swagger of an ageing rock star. The ladies in their polka dot and floral dresses, aged everywhere from 20s to 70s, go wild. I’m screeching “Robbieeeeee!!!” as he kicks off with “Let Me Entertain You”. The party has officially started. He’s whipping his sweat towel. He looks and sounds so much like the real Robbie it’s uncanny. When he points the mic to us after “now scream” our high-pitched yells are almost blood-curdling. When Robbie starts playing “Rock DJ” I absolutely lose my shit. It’s at this point my boyfriend’s face turns from a bemused raised eyebrow to a furrowed brow.
The girls on the front row are reaching out their arms to touch him. One of the girls who’s been chugging wine from the bottle is sick into her hands. My screams are getting more and more unhinged. Robbie prances around in his gold sequin number as he goes through other bangers, ending on crowd-pleaser “Angel”. He kills it.
I’m incredibly, pleasantly surprised. Usually, celebrity impersonators get a bad rep: mortifying at worst, cringey at best. We’ve seen it go wrong so many times, case in point your local Elvis impersonator – which is arguably what started it all in the 50s, before tribute bands fully kicked off after the Beatles. The bottom line is though, even if they’re good, you find it embarrassing because you think – brutally – they’re some wannabe who wasn’t talented enough to be an artist in their own right. It’s a bit like that old phrase: “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.” In actuality, many tribute artists only enter the industry after constantly being told they resemble that person, according to one impersonator. Dan Budd’s career started after Robbie’s real dad spotted the likeness at a karaoke bar (he wasn’t even singing Robbie).
And as Budd proves, there’s something incredibly impressive about mastering a celebrity’s singing voice, speaking voice, mannerism and looks, which is obviously just genetic luck – or fate.
Back at the gig now though, and Take That are dad-dancing onto the stage again, with Robbie this time, for the OG band reunion we’ve been waiting for. In “Relight My Fire” Gary shows off some moves that remind me of that wedding singer in The Hangover. “Could It be Magic” is a sight to behold, with the same wonderfully cringey boy band choreography – lots of jumping, pointing and getting low. They’re all having a right old laugh, noticeably more than the first act. Their energy levels have shot up. Maybe it’s down to Robbie? Who knows! We’re all having a ball. (Howard, however, seems to have bad knees.)
In “Back for Good”, Robbie and Gary step down off the stage and swan through the crowd, with Robbie going up to Shelagh for a hug and a pork pie. Shelagh is practically crying. I’m ever so slightly – just slightly, OK – jealous. I half-try to brush past Robbie, but I can’t quite get close enough. My boyfriend asks me to stop making my lust for him so obvious.
As the evening concludes on “Never Forget”, the room bursts into joy. My mum has her arm around me. My boyfriend and I might’ve arrived feeling too young, too cool, too superior, but we – or at least I – left feeling like my soul had been nourished.
Seeing Robbie 2.0 – especially next to the other band members – solidified to me why Robbie was, is and always will be the top dog of Take That. His aura is electric. His appeal is eternal. He’s the perfect loose cannon popstar. And let’s face it, seeing him live would probably set you back hundreds in this ridiculous gig ticket era – so why not save your pennies and get the Next Best Thing? Maybe, as we get priced out of actual artists’ shows, the true era of the tribute is upon us.
When I leave the gig, I promise myself I’ll go to more tribute acts because it was a fucking hoot. I vow to listen to Robbie more than just when doing karaoke. I convince my mum to try and hire Dan Budd for her 60th. Sadly, this never happened because he is booked up the entire year. Still, as mum tells me on the way out: “It was the best £15 per person I’ve ever spent.”