Face to face with Westlife
- Jonathan Chua () - September 10, 2006 - 12:00am
"I would like to sing with Barbra Streisand." Shane, the lead singer of Westlife, was rectifying an answer he had made. We were at the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza; it was merely a few hours before the boys’ concert, their third in the Philippines, at the Araneta. Outside the rains had begun to pour, much as it does in a typical boy band video.

I had asked the boys which other diva they would like to sing with, as they had already sung with Mariah Carey, Diana Ross and Donna Summer; and he had answered, "Michael Jackson." The other members of the press in the room burst into laughter. He looked a little befuddled. "Do you think it’s funny? Or just not realistic? Why are you laughing?"

"He’s a divo," explained the moderator. "He was asking which other diva... "

"No, I think he’s a diva!" interjected Nicky, the most facetious of the four boys as Kian is the most serious. (Later, someone would ask them how else they would like to be remembered, now that Westlife had been named the best ever boy band, and Nicky would blurt out, "As the best-looking boy band ever!" It was Kian who would give the earnest but rather drab answer, "As a band who releases good music and pop songs...")

"Oh, diva! I thought you said . . ."

So Barbra it was for Shane. "Yes, she’s got a beautiful voice," he added.

Somebody suggested Liza, but his remark was, "Liza Minnelli? No."

A duet with Barbra might not be forthcoming, the "diva" of the group, Mark, had sung Barbra’s part when Westlife performed (No More Tears) Enough Is Enough with Donna Summer earlier this year. (In appearance Mark is more Liza than Barbra – the eyebrows and lashes are long, the eyes big like saucers, the smile dimpled and toothy, the timbre of voice sad like that of Liza’s mother and Barbra’s predecessor, Judy Garland.) The song was written for two female voices, so there was a little awkwardness about the pronouns: "I’ve always dreamed I’d find the perfect lover, / but he turned out to be like every other man I loved..."

But coming out becomes Mark. On Aug. 18 last year, he made public his relationship with Kevin McDaid, member of another boy band. (Wags now contend that one out of every five boys in a boy band is bound to be gay, Lance Bass of ’N Sync being the latest case since Boyzone’s Stephen Gately’s much publicized coming out in 1999.) "I am gay, and I’m very proud of who I am," Mark declared back then. "I’m not asking for sympathy or to be a role model for anyone else." How has life changed since? "Very much for the better," he said. "It changed me very positively because now I feel more one... I’m 100 percent me now." Gone are the severe, "constipated" poses (compensatory they were, at hindsight), and his penchant for the vocally flamboyant makes more sense. He apparently hasn’t lost too many female fans: "Marry me, Mark!" read the banners at the concert. But, alas, he is still an awkward dancer.

The problem with staging a Westlife concert at the Araneta (or any other venue here) is that it cannot be as elaborate as it would be in Europe. Thus, instead of descending from the ceiling or suspended in mid-air, the boys marched up the stage. The effect, however, was perhaps better than anticipated. It was like a page out of Dante – the boys emerging from out of a dark maw like the inferno, to a platform set amid a backdrop of stars. For the audience, the moment was something of the Paradiso, and Flying Without Wings, the first number, was apropos.

The concert was a mix of old favorites (Seasons in the Sun, Mandy, World of Our Own) and new songs from the group’s newest album, their seventh, Face to Face. As with Westlife concerts of the past, the risqué was kept to a minimum (a mild "booty shake" here, a naked shoulder there, a wink) – which may (or may not) account for the fact that among the thousands who went to the Coliseum were children, the matronly, and even the elderly. (But a friend, Cyan, couldn’t go because she was several months with child.)

What sets this concert apart from their two previous Westlife concerts here is its greater musical audacity. For instance, as the group went backstage for a costume change, the band played the intro of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. (Perhaps, this accounts for Shane’s confusion at the press conference.) The boys came out in Michael Jackson regalia (sequined gloves, red jacket, hat and all), and did a few steps that the "gloved one" had popularized. (They were smart enough not to try the moon walk; Mark would never have landed.) Everyone expected them to sing Billie Jean, but it was their own song (She’s Back), re-arranged like Billie Jean, that they sang. Midway, they segued to Jackson’s hit song before returning to their own – the mix was inventive.

In another instance, Uptown Girl was rendered big-band style – a glance at their album Allow Us To Be Frank, in which they sang like the Rat Pack. The boys put on tail coats and top hats and sported walking canes, but they were also still in their Michael Jackson jeans and shoes (an inadvertent reference to Judy there). That was perhaps Westlife’s response to the accusation that it does not sing original material. The originality in this case was rested on the remaking of their remake – admittedly a slavish copy of Billy Joel’s original – into something just short of being politically transgressive. The video for the song, it may be recalled, had the boys playing singing cooks and waiters (Billy Joel was a gas boy in his version), for whom an apparently wealthy and pretty diner (played by model Claudia Schiffer) dumped her rich but snobby suitors. The interpretation at the concert was a refreshing, rather skeptical take on the song, just as the video was a romanticized rendering: "Does romance really close the class divide, or is it a cue for social climbing?"

Vocally, the boys have improved, thankfully. At their first Philippine concert at the Folks Arts Theater, the boys got by on sheer good looks, and the false notes nearly outnumbered the good ones. When Bryan left the group three years ago, it was feared that the group would have trouble performing live, because, truth to tell, the burden of singing was not (and still isn’t) equally shared. They were not quite Barbra Streisand yet, but this time around, Mark had less trouble sliding into a note or sustaining one when he got there. Although Nicky still sounded as dry as martini, the pipes apparently had never been better oiled. Kian took over what had been Bryan’s parts and did well by his ex-band mate. Shane, as always, delivered.

The last song of the evening, a brief one, was You Raise Me Up, a fitting close, it seems, to a concert by a band whose message has ever been the uplifting effect of love.

At hindsight, it was all in order, even the ending. Back at the press conference, Giovanni, a reporter from another daily, had enough chutzpah to ask the boys to sign a poster. They did, and then invited him to sit among them (he ended up ensconced between Mark and Nicky, his favorite). One simply couldn’t be raised higher than that, save perhaps by receiving a kiss. But even for Dante, propelled to the highest heaven, a glimpse of God’s face was enough to make his cup run over; even so, it would seem, for the thousands who flocked to the Araneta to see the boys face to face – and certainly for Giovanni, who has yet to descend from the proverbial cloud nine, flying without wings, indeed.

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