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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A taste of RONAN

A taste of RONAN

Ronan Keating kneels before his guitarist: Tongue out, he laps at the guitar

strings like an eager Irish terrier. It wasn't quite rock 'n' roll- but the

peculiar moment of spontaneity highlighted an evening of insipid pop balladry

that only occasionally lifted itself above the mundane.

The former

Boyzone front man arrived in Phnom Penh, for his May 9 indoor concert at Olympic

Stadium, in the wake of a massive promotional campaign. Ultimately, the

much-hyped Keating show was under-sold and, in the end, mostly

under-whelming.

Billed as the first international pop star to play

Cambodia, the mega-star's whistle-stop visit - the second-leg of his Asian tour

- at times seemed less about music than the spectacle of celebrity and

"historic" nature of the event.

But there was no doubt that Keating, with

more than 20 hit singles to his name, was a perfect choice for the

groundbreaking show.

Often described as "the nicest man in pop," it is

difficult not to like the 30-year-old Dubliner. He's clean cut and handsome -

but not overwhelmingly so - and has a sweet Irish brogue in which he says

heartfelt things about the fragility of life and the importance of "giving

something back."

He's the boy next door, a shoe shop assistant made

good, but still grounded by his Catholic faith. He has admitted to smoking

"dope" once in Amsterdam, but Pete Doherty he is not.

Besides the guitar

lapping, the only raunch in the family-friendly event was an awkward, and

short-lived, hip gyration that would have mortified Elvis - even at the King's

slovenly worst.

Meet the press

Keating

arrived from Bangkok late on May 8. In the morning of the show had told a group

of reporters - and an excitable throng of photographers - how happy he was to

have made it to the Kingdom.

"But I've only been in town ten minutes, so

I can't really say much about the place," he said. "I thought the buildings

would be taller. I'm amazed they're lower."

Keating said it was a "huge

honor" to be the first international pop star to play Cambodia.

"I hope

that me coming here opens up doors," he said. "It's like, come on, let's come to

Cambodia. Let's big it up. I hope a lot of other artists will

follow."

Keating, who has worked as a UN Ambassador and for Christian

Aid, talked about his "awareness" of "the issues" and his interest in

humanitarian work.

"I do know there're situations here in Cambodia and I

do need to understand them more," he said. "It's going to take time. I'm only

just in the door and I've got to leave tomorrow. But when I get on the plane, it

won't just finish like that. It isn't just about coming here and making a quick

buck that's for sure. All I can say is: watch this space."

Keating did

manage to front up for Cambodia's disabled community before the concert by

presenting a check on behalf of ANZ Royal to support the CNVLD 2007 Wheelchair

Grand Prix.

Without translation, many of the Cambodian journalists

struggled to understand the Q&A session and repeatedly asked the same

question: "How does it feel to be in Cambodia?"

To Keating's credit, he

managed to give different answers to each. Finally, one plucky journalist

gathered some courage.

"Can we have our photo taken with you?" he

asked.

At times, the Keating show seemed to have little to do with

music.

ANZ Royal, a principal sponsor of the CTN-managed event, and a

promotional partner with telecommunications giant Mobitel - companies all part

of tycoon Kith Meng's Royal Group - summed up the concert's significance in a

statement released before the show, which was neatly phrased in the past

tense.

"Playing before an enthusiastic crowd of thousands," the press

release read. "Keating's show clearly reflected Cambodia's capability to host

international standard events."

The concert was a display of capability -

or in NGO-speak, "a recognition of capacity." Although the suitably vague

"thousands" betrayed a distinct lack of capacity on the part of the promoters to

fill the arena.

Prior to the concert, organizers confirmed 2,500 of the

7,000 tickets had been sold. Well short of the initial plan to hold the concert

in the 50,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.

Ticket prices of $15, $25 and $65

may have been too pricey. Even though the best seats were reduced to $35 in the

final days, the cost may have proved too expensive in a country where civil

servants - including the policemen at the venue - earn about $35 a

month.

Perhaps as moving as any of Keating's lyrics on the night, was the

sight of a baton wielding police officer filling his pockets with glow sticks

discarded by ticket-holders.

"Toys for my children," he

confided.

Encore performance

For the

well-heeled children of Phnom Penh's nouveau riche who half-filled the venue,

entertainment was the aim; along with the pleasurable flush of seeing an

international pop star in the flesh and the knowledge they were partaking in a

"historic" event.

The Vann Molyvann-designed arena did prove a capable

venue. There was no air conditioning, but dozens of fans sprayed a light mist

onto the predominantly Khmer crowd. The audience sat patiently through a

three-song set by CTN pop star Lida, then rushed the stage when Keating

appeared.

Others stood on chairs and waved their glow sticks. Those in

the "cheap" seats, at the back and to the sides, remained unmoved.

The

sound system was capable. But Keating's vapid pop provided too few visceral

moments: only the occasional searing guitar solo, the odd booming bass line, and

a few punching drum sections excited the crowd.

Keating's music is

lyrically driven: the chorus defines his songs and his hits defined the night.

The pedestrian pop balladry was punctuated by moments of genuine excitement as

the crowd responded to their favorite songs.

Ringtone

messiah

In the lead up to the concert, the 2002 hit "Tomorrow

Never Comes" was the chosen ring-tone on Mobitel phones throughout the country.

It was no surprise, then, that the song's first lines were greeted with a roar.

The crowd sang along throughout, and Keating pronounced it the best version he'd

ever heard from a crowd.

The show was a mixture of old and new and

included Boyzone covers of Tracy Chapman and Cat Stevens. It ended with a

two-song encore capped by the hit "When You Say Nothing at All" - the evening's

other favorite.

At the concert's end, Keating appeared

rapturous.

"I love Cambodia," he shouted, after his day in Phnom Penh.

As the fans filed out, flushed and sweaty, there was a buzz of

excitement. They'd been entertained.

"It was great," said Lea Khena, 20.

"It was so fun to see a Western pop star."

Loy Chetana, 20, a secretary,

said she was a fan of Keating since his Boyzone days.

"Just to see him

made me happy," she said. "He's handsome. But only because he's a pop

star."

Chetana said she was excited about Keating's visit because she

knew he had done humanitarian work. In fact, she passed a handwritten plea to

one of Keating's bodyguards.

"It said: 'The children at the dump site

need your help,'" Chetana explained. "There's lots of poor people in Cambodia

and I hope he will come back and help them. I wanted to ask him and that's the

main reason I came."

If Keating's "capable" performance will open any

doors, if he ever returns-or if he responds to Chetana's note-remains to be

seen.

As the star said: "Watch this space."

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