Barry Manilow: A pure showbiz ‘farewell’ from the Springsteen of easy listening

Barry Manilow at the Palladium
Barry Manilow at the Palladium - Lorne Thomson

The first night of a 15-show residency at the London Palladium by Barry Manilow unfolded in a hysterical blast of glitter, grins and over-emoting – and that was just the audience. This tour has been billed as the 80-year-old Manilow’s “last, last UK concerts” (oh promises, promises – his previous farewell tour was in 2015) and the sense of anticipation was palpable.

A crowd of all ages (but mainly old ages) had come dressed for fun, with lots of glittery costumes and sparklers, waving fluorescent glo sticks and singing loudly along as soon as the curtain rose on Manilow, silhouetted in the crosshairs of multiple spotlights as his 10-piece band launched into his 1975 US number one single It’s A Miracle. For the next two hours, the showbiz veteran delivered everything his audience could have hoped for with the passion, commitment, energy, humour and charisma of a man who lives to perform, and who is as utterly in thrall to his music and his fans as they are to him.

Is Barry Manilow the easy listening Bruce Springsteen? Bear with me on this. Both are highly driven 1970’s singer-songwriters who deliver legendary sets packed with long, wordy, heartfelt songs in epic arrangements studded with piano, horns and thick backing vocals. No showbiz cliché goes unturned (corny jokes and sincere monologues, dance routines with band members, faux modesty and jokey braggadocio, songs that pretend to stop then restart with new vigour) but something about the conviction of the performer achieves a transcendence in which the audience buy fully into the moment, surrendering joyfully to the notion that we are all participating in the greatest show on earth.

OK, let’s not push the comparison with rock and roll’s Boss too far. Manilow is also corny as hell, offering a night of pure schmaltz with little subtlety or nuance, overselling songs with little depth and no connection to the wider world, and offering no scope for real expression of musical personality from a tightly drilled band who might as well be playing in a review at Vegas or the pit at a theatrical musical.

And unlike the eternal Bruce, no one’s going to accuse Manilow of ageing gracefully. He was always a little gawky-looking, as he jokingly acknowledged whilst duetting his classic hit Mandy with a video of his younger self on a 1975 US TV show: “Man, do I look like Taylor Swift on a bad hair day!” Well not anymore. A lot of plastic surgery, pancake makeup and age defying wigs have left him more resembling a badly-carved puppet.

Barry Manilow at the London Palladium
Barry Manilow at the London Palladium - Lorne Thomson

At 80, Manilow’s movements are jerkily stiff, and while he can still hold the big notes, his voice has become lower, grittier and less fluid, kept low in the sound mix to disguise a tendency to drift flat.

I don’t think his audience care about such things. It is as if Manilow is the conduit for the good time they already knew they were going to have – and that is an art in itself. The Palladium shook to a mighty singalong of his signature 1975 hit I Write the Songs – ironically a song he didn’t actually write himself (it was composed by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys). There is no place for irony at a Barry Manilow show, though. The only sensible response is to break out the glo sticks, surrender inhibitions, and join in. His cheesy reputation probably means most people won’t miss him when he’s gone, but Manilow and his devotees are determined to go out singing.

Until June 9;