|Barry Gibb at Rod Laver Arena, February 12.|
Because one Barry Gibb concert was never going to be enough, I decided to jump across to Melbourne for a whirlwind couple of nights to see the second most successful songwriter in music history* play Rod Laver Arena just 11 nights before he’ll be here in New Zealand. On his first solo tour, Barry has sold out five shows in Australia’s three largest indoor venues – Rod Laver Arena, Sydney Entertainment Centre (x2), Brisbane Entertainment Centre (x2) – for a combined audience in excess of 60,000 people. When you add to that the almost sold out Mission Estate concert in Napier on February 23rd, more than 80,000 people will have seen Barry on his Mythology tour.
Which is not bad by anyone’s standards, let alone a 66 year old who had never performed a full solo concert until last year. But this is not just any sort of tour, indeed this is equal parts a spiritual, emotional homecoming as it is a tribute to Barry’s three younger brothers as it is a testing of the waters to see what the future may hold.
For Barry, Australia has always represented home. As much as he his proudly Isle of Man born, Manchester raised and a longtime Miami resident, it was in Australia from 1958 to the end of 1966 that the Bee Gees formed and made their first strides to fame. Settling in Redcliffe, north of Brisbane, it was there Barry told Robin and Maurice it was either to be a life of crime or a life of music. And with that, Barry instructed the twins they were to throw everything they’d stolen (usually from Woolworths and normally pen knives, rings etc) off the pier and to never steal again.
“Fulfill your destiny, it’s there within the child,” is a line from Immortality, “the last great song we wrote together,” said Barry on Tuesday night before singing the song he Robin and Maurice had written for Celine Dion back in 1997. It was a line which never hit me when Celine sung it, but when Barry first performed it at a concert in Miami about a year ago, it finally did. These were three kids who plotted their destiny and set about fulfilling it. And through every set back and every tragedy, they never gave up.
2013 sees Barry alone – the last remaining Gibb brother – and perhaps for the first time he’s able to appreciate that despite everything, the dream came true. They made it. 220 million albums sold, 21 different songs as songwriters to hit US or UK #1, 9 Grammy awards, success in every corner of the globe and now, a bronze statue erected where it all began.
Unveiled yesterday in Redcliffe in a ceremony attended by the extended Gibb family and more than 3000 fans was a life-size statue of the the Bee Gees as they were 50 years ago: big brother Barry with the guitar and the twins Robin and Maurice at his sides, all three barefoot. This was key for Barry as it represents the love of Australia tattooed in his memory as a kid from cold Manchester who arrived in a land of palm trees, sunshine and no necessity for shoes.
But more than the statue is now a full Bee Gees walk (called “Bee Gees Way”) set against a backdrop of memorabilia and plaques of classic song titles from the Gibb back catalogue – plucked from an estimated 2000 recorded works. Tears flowed and 92 year old Babara Gibb said she couldn’t be more proud of what her boys achieved.
Which brings us to the present. What is a solo Barry Gibb in concert like in 2013? For a start, at roughly 130 minutes it’s longer than Bee Gees concerts by about half hour and longer than a solo Robin Gibb concert by 40 minutes. As for the set-list, there are the traditional arrangements of mammoth hits like Jive Talkin’, Lonely Days, You Should Be Dancing, Stayin’ Alive and How Deep Is Your Love, but for the first time the Barbra Streisand duet Guilty is performed in full (with backing singer Beth Cohen stepping in for Babs), How Can You Mend A Broken Heart becomes a country-tinged duet with niece Samantha Gibb (Maurice’s daughter) and I’ve Gotta’ Get A Message To You sees Barry’s son Stephen take the place of Robin on the verses in an almost Joe Cocker style.
Number one hits written for other artists like Islands In The Stream and If I Can’t Have You are there, with the latter an outstanding Samatha Gibb solo, as is a soulful To Love Somebody and the haunting First Of May. Perhaps the real treat is that while the huge hits dominate the set-list, throughout are a handful of lesser known fan favorites like Maurice’s hard-rocking solo song On Time (this time sung by Stephen), In The Morning and Playdown from the Australian days, 1968’s Simon and Garfunkel-esque Kilburn Towers and the reflective and possibly autobiographical Ordinary Lives from 1989.
The falsetto remains intact and I noticed little deterioration in Barry’s natural voice from the One Night Only era of 1997-1999, possibly due to him giving up smoking 12 years ago. Rather than trying to recreate the famous Bee Gees three-part harmonies, Barry has opted instead for a 12-piece band with three soulful backing vocalists as well as the vocals of Stephen (who also plays lead guitar) and Samantha. In other words, the sound is full and as Barry told me in our last interview in October, “it’s a great band Timmy!” He’s right about that and for me, this band is the most proficient he, the Bee Gees or Robin have fronted since the glory days of the 1979 Sprits Having Flown tour.
Further to that, the way Barry chats to the crowd in between songs is the most extensive and rewarding of any previous Gibb concerts I’ve seen. However! I don’t really want to give away all the surprises (though with full knowledge you can now find them on YouTube), but I will reveal it’s fair to say I Started A Joke is the emotional highlight of these Mythology concerts. As for why, resist the Internet and make sure you’re in Napier on February 23rd.
*The Guiness Book Of Records lists Barry Gibb as the second most successful songwriter of all time after Paul McCartney.