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Westlife are back together for their first show in Macao this July
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Westlife are back together for their first show in Macao this July

After years apart, Irish pop phenomenon Westlife are back together – and they’re gearing up to play their first ever show in Macao in July. Anna Cummins reports.

If Westlife’s career trajectory to date were adapted into a ballad, their 2018 reunion announcement would be the moment when the euphoric key change kicks in; where the four surviving members arise triumphantly from their stools, proceeding to clench fists and close eyes earnestly amid rapturous harmonising. It’s the payoff we’ve all been waiting for. Yes, the wistful crooners are back, looking as well-coiffed  as ever, with a new album “Spectrum” coming out in September,  and their first tour in seven years kicked off in May. The  “Twenty Tour” celebrates two decades of hits, and it arrives at The Venetian Macao’s Cotai Arena on July 26 and 27, boasting magnificent stage production from the team behind Cirque du  Soleil in Las Vegas.

“We need to blow  people away” -Shane Filan

“The [staging] technology has just changed so much in the seven years since we have been away, and you can do so much,” singer Shane Filan told the Irish Mail on Sunday in April. “You have to invest in the show to give people something amazing. It’s basically a spectacular show with Westlife songs thrown in … We need to blow people away, the way that Coldplay do, and we are confident we can do that.”

Aside from the enthralling visuals, Westlife’s set promises to pack in plenty of gems from their extensive back catalogue. During their reign, the band achieved a monumental 14 UK number one singles, including Flying Without Wings, Fool Again, A World of Our Own, You Raise Me Up, and their soaring rendition of Phil Collins’ Against All Odds, recorded with Mariah Carey. Incredibly, the beloved band’s first seven singles all went straight to number one in the UK – equalling a record first set by the Beatles.

The news of the reunion caused great joy among their legions of fans. The band officially called it quits back in 2012, and at the time unequivocally ruled out a future return, citing ongoing rifts as a major factor.

But time is many things, and it is unquestionably a great healer. It’s been a long road to this point for Kian Egan, Markus Feehily, Shane Filan and Nicky Byrne (fifth founding member Brian McFadden departed the lineup in 2004).

Three members of the band – Egan, Feehily and Filan – first met at school in Sligo town in northwest Ireland, and first performed together in 1997 in a six-member vocal group called Six as One, which changed its name to I.O.YOU the same year. After I.O.YOU received little recognition in Ireland for their first single, Filan’s mother got in touch with Louis Walsh, then the manager of legendary Irish boyband Boyzone (and now famous for his appearances on UK talent show The X Factor), to ask him to take them under his wing.

At first, Walsh wasn’t enthusiastic. But after some tinkering – three members of the sextet departed, and Byrne and McFadden joined following a round of auditions in Dublin – Boyzone’s lead singer Ronan Keating agreed to co-manage the newly coined Westside.

By 1998, Westside had secured a deal with Simon Cowell on his label Syco Records. A final name change came when it emerged that another band were already using their name, and Westlife was born.

“Nobody else could have broken Westlife like Simon did,” Walsh recalled in a 2012 interview with The Guardian. “There are a few reasons they were successful: yes they were nice guys, and yes they had good songs. But it was Simon who broke them. He wasn’t on TV then, he was an A&R man trying to break a band. He was so into it. Every single little detail, from the clothes to the videos.”

Westlife’s self-titled debut album, released in the UK in November 1999, was a smash hit. Double A-side cover singles Seasons in the Sun and I Have a Dream reached the prestigious UK Christmas number one slot that year, and the band won the Record of the Year gong for Flying Without Wings – a feat they repeated the following year with My Love, a single from their second album “Coast to Coast”.

Critics occasionally lambasted the band for their formulaic approach, but it didn’t matter when fans joyfully turned out in their tens of thousands to sing along to every word. These angelic voiced pop wunderkinds had struck a rich seam of ballad mastery.

“Everyone knows the style,” Markus Feehily laughed during an interview with The Guardian in 2012. “A piano intro, Shane starts the song, the drum beat kicks in for the second verse. I sing the second verse and maybe the middle eight, then there’s a key change, a gospel choir and some ad-libs, the end.”

After wildly successful sales of “Unbreakable – Greatest Hits  Vol. 1” (2002) and  “Turnaround” (2003) – the album that provided the band with its 12th UK number one, with a rendition of Barry Manilow’s Mandy – it seemed Westlife were riding on an unwavering winning streak.

So it was a shock for the press and fans alike when, in 2004, Brian McFadden announced at an emotional press conference he was departing the band to pursue a solo career and concentrate on his family. The news came just three weeks before the group were due to head out on a world tour.

“It was Mandy,” McFadden told The Independent shortly after the split in 2004. “That was definitely a turning point. I’ve always been very proud of Westlife, and I still think that we never got the respect we deserved, but I was ashamed of that song. From the second we went into the studio to record it, I lost all interest.”

Undeterred, the four remaining members continued releasing albums at a rate of almost one a year until 2011, when they announced it was time for “a well-earned break and a look at new ventures”. A grand farewell tour followed in 2012, with their goodbye performance in Dublin streamed throughout 200 cinemas around the world. 

The next six years gave rise to a slew of reasonably successful solo efforts from the disbanded quartet. But, in October last year, Egan, Feehily, Filan and Byrne announced to excited fans they planned to regroup – demand for the new tour in the UK caused ticketing websites to crash.

In an apparent bid to avoid being labelled a nostalgia act, Westlife have made the savvy decision to enlist global hit machine Ed Sheeran, who has co-written the first two singles from their upcoming 11th album “Spectrum”: Hello My Love and Better Man. (Feehily has described the latter as a “modern Westlife 2.0 ballad”). “Spectrum” also promises collaborations with English singer songwriter James Bay.

Today, Westlife have over 1.2 billion views on YouTube and have sold over 44 million studio albums. They may have never quite “cracked” America, but with an overseas fanbase as large, vocal and as dedicated as their Asian one, it barely matters. Hold on to your stools and bring a packet of Tempo: this is one show that’s certain to be an emotional roller coaster.