- 06 Jul 19
It is a measure of just how central Queen have become to the modern cultural conversation that a hit machine like Westlife would devote an entire section of their 20th Anniversary show to the work of the band fronted by the late Freddie Mercury. The question is: did it work?
It has been twenty years since Westlife appeared on the Irish music scene with first single ‘Swear it Again’. The band duly set out to become our pre-eminent mainstream pop act.
In the intervening two decades, they have achieved an extraordinary level of national and international success, with a plethora of No.1 hit singles, platinum albums and successful tours. In recognition of all that, tonight marks a significant homecoming for the band, who are currently celebrating those two decades with an anniversary tour that has taken in 31 dates around Europe.
The 80,000-strong Dublin crowd is whipped into a frenzy with an impressive pyrotechnic display that introduces the band, who then launch into their Ed Sheeran-composed recent single, ‘Hello, My Love’. The slick production rolls on with ‘What About Now’ and ‘When You’re Looking Like That,’ both of which benefit from the extra muscle that an accomplished live backing band affords. The band take a brief break to give thanks to the crowd, during which the gregarious Nicky Byrne makes his way down the catwalk and engages fans, at one point asking for a show of hands of the lads who have been dragged along by their partners. It’s all good fun.
As expected, fans are treated to the traditional series of covers, including Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ and Barry Manilow’s ‘Mandy’, but things take an unusual turn with a whole segment in which Westlife turn into a Queen tribute act, covering the likes of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘Radio Gaga’, ‘Somebody to Love’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, ‘We Will Rock You’, and 'We Are the Champions’.
Kian Egan even slips on a guitar for some of the solos, though one suspects it is the skilled session sideman who is actually playing the complex part. I’m not sure at what point or even why Queen has become everybody’s unofficial favourite band, but this is yet further acknowledgment of the classic rock band’s contemporary cultural significance.
As the band takes some time off stage a pre-filmed interview is broadcast on the large monitors in which the singers talk of their dreams of stardom, before they re-appear to acknowledge the fact that they have indeed “made it”. Nothing validates that sentiment more than a packed stadium of ticket-holders singing their lyrics back to them en masse.
This being a Westlife show, it is only a matter of time before the stools are brought out for the lads to sit on, and deliver an abbreviated medley of hits which, as they say, must be done because they have too many hits for one concert. True that, but maybe knocking the Queen act on the head would allow time for those hits to be rolled out in earnest. Regardless, the fans came expecting a dramatic rise from the stools to go with modulated key changes and the lads truly delivered.
The evening marks Shane Filan’s 40th birthday, and he is duly serenaded with a rendition of Happy Birthday by the assembly and a visit to the stage by family members for cake and selfies, adding a bit of real emotional zest. The climax of the show includes a genuinely touching performance of the Brendag Graham Rolf Løvland contemporary classic, ‘You Raise Me Up', which reliably stirs the senses in such a setting. To finish, the lads don the white suits to bring it home with their modern Irish pop standards, ‘Flying Without Wings’ and ‘World of our Own’.
There are few home-grown acts that could sell out two shows at Croke Park. Westlife have earned their membership in that exclusive club. It is by any standards a powerful achievement.