Girls Aloud make a spectacular comeback with this moving, celebratory tribute to their late bandmate

Reunited: Girls Aloud performing in Dublin
Reunited: Girls Aloud performing in Dublin - Tom Dymond/Shutterstock

They were arguably the biggest British girl group of the Noughties era. As if determined to remind us of that lofty status, the curtain dropped on Girls Aloud’s comeback concert at the 3Arena in Dublin to show them standing imperiously 20 feet tall, each perched on a suspended platform, their giant billowing dresses stretching down to a stage broiling in dry ice.

Performing together for the first time in 11 years, it was a suitably spectacular opening to a fantastic pop concert, staged with energy, style, humour, warmth, panache and a blast of real emotions, from the mutual joy of band and fans reunited across the years to the poignant celebrations of late bandmate Sarah Harding, who died of breast cancer in 2021 aged 39.

You might imagine that such a tragic intrusion of mortality into something as inherently escapist as a manufactured pop troupe could put a crimp in proceedings. But that would be to underestimate the power of pop as a soundtrack to the real lives of fans. The surviving quartet – Cheryl (Tweedy), Nadine Coyle, Nicola Roberts and Kimberly Walsh – did an exemplary job of weaving Harding into proceedings, with videos of their younger selves forming a dazzling, ever-changing backdrop. The biggest singalong moment featured their cover of The Pretenders’ I’ll Stand By You which they sung as a “duet” with a recording of Harding’s vocals. Phones lit up, voices rang out in a joyful acknowledgement of shared history, with nothing maudlin about it. Because that history also included a lot of laughter and dancing to songs about friendship, sex and romance.

The group formed at TV talent contest Popstars: the Rivals in 2002, and scored 21 top 10 hit singles – including four number ones – before they went their separate ways in 2013. A planned 20th anniversary was put on hold due to Harding’s illness. The “Girls” are all fortysomething women now, looking fit and fantastic, and still sounding connected to the fizzily inventive electro pop songs supplied by production maestro Brian Higgins and his team at Xenomania. Effervescent bangers as perfectly crafted as classic debut Sound of the Underground, hyperpop antecedent Biology and their shouty cover of the Pointer Sisters’ Jump are never going to sound old, especially with thousands of women (it was mainly women) yelling along as tunefully as they could manage. Which you could equally say of the band themselves.

They can all sing, and it would be churlish to suggest otherwise. But with voices mixed high over pre-recorded backing tracks, there was a rough and ready quality which lacked the finesse (and possibly all the autotune effects) apparent at concerts by the next generation of younger pop singers. Their choreography amounted mainly to walking purposefully in unison whilst a troupe of male dancers cavorted lasciviously about them. There was a lot of eye contact between the quartet, as if they were constantly checking out where they were supposed to position limbs in the dance routines.

Girls Aloud with a picture of late bandmate Sarah Harding on the screen
Girls Aloud with a picture of late bandmate Sarah Harding on the screen - Tom Dymond/Shutterstock

If anything, all of this added to the occasion’s sense of earthy reality, like being at a huge karaoke party starring some of the more extrovert members of your family. (Not that I’ve ever been to a family do staged as spectacularly as this.) The most jaw-dropping moment featured all four flying suspended motorcycles over the heads of the audience to a backdrop of onscreen lightning whilst performing electro anthem Wake Me Up. It is encouraging to note that streamers and confetti fired at the right moment can still inspire gasps of awe and delight.

Cheryl spoke about the trust between band and audience, then threatened to stage dive into the crowd. “Would you catch us? That would be the ultimate test.” Nadine Coyle talked about how hard it was to believe they had made it this far. “People keep saying 20-plus years, but that can’t be right, ‘cos I’m only 22,” she joked. But these women have got qualities their younger selves would struggle to match: experience, loyalty, the sheer life-affirming delight of being able to stand onstage and sing to remind themselves and their fans that we are still here, and to celebrate those who aren’t.

Girls Aloud are at Belfast SSE Arena on Monday and then  touring til June 30th. Tickets Their new compilation album, The Whole Damn Show Megamix, is out now.