WHERE & WHEN: Sheffield (Arena), Monday 1st October 2012
COMMENTS: George Michael’s well-documented propensity for rubbing the law up the wrong way, either in public toilets committing lewd acts, or after crashing his car into a shop-front when under the influence of a minor recreationial drug, has far outweighed note of any artistic ambitions or merit in recent years.
For a performer with one of the most effortlessly attractive voices in mainstream music over the last three decades, (and with better songs than you may think, though less of them than his hardcore fans might) this must rankle somewhat.
A near-death experience in 2011, due to complications arising from a pneumonia-related illness, at least eventually offered the opportunity for a spot of lazarus-like barnstorming and grandstanding at the Olympic Closing Ceremony in August this year. Michael, though, was widely pilloried for being commercially opportunistic in his decision to play new material – a new single, at that – at what some saw as an inappropriate moment. But, in fairness, it may have been a highly personal or artistic choice based on the fact that the song (WHITE LIGHT, a slightly underachieving slice of that tasteful bass-heavy spectral dance that he does so well) dealt with what one can only assume was a profound personal experience – in which case to play it was perhaps merely poorly timed self indulgence. But isn’t that “regardless of what is expected” attitude something which some choose to celebrate in other, more credible, less pilloried, artists?
Whichever it was, whatever is really going on with the man behind-the-scenes of George Michael as a business entity, things seem unpredictable and occasionally unfathomable. The public pronouncement (via his website) about post-traumatic acute anxiety having caused the entire Antipodean leg of this current tour to be cancelled, though undoubtedly carefully brushed with a slight corporate sheen, will have been read by some as vaguely reminiscent of troubled Sinead O’Connor’s online propensity for too much rough-and-ready earnestness.
So there was a tangible extra frisson in airy Sheffield Arena during the moments leading up to Michael’s arrival on stage for his first ever concert in the city. What kind of day at the office would George Michael be capable of turning in? What kind of George Michael would be turning up? Would George Michael, in fact, turn up?
Though one actually couldn’t help but be astonished by how much weight he’d lost and how fragile and ageing his hands looked, as custodian of an expensively produced show it was business as usual. And, in-and-of itself, delightfully good natured business, at that.
A lush-looking red gossamer curtain stayed fixed around the semi-circular stage throughout the first half of opening song THROUGH, and a backlit Michael was projected to immense proportion against it. The slightest nuance of movement in this giant silhouette probably caused near chaos for the sound engineers, as what seemed to be several thousand raucous hen nights converged at once.
George clicked his fingers, there were screams and fingers clicked. George swayed his arms above his head, there were screams and swayed arms overhead. As the curtain finally opened and George made his superstar entrance, dancing in that curious way that resembles a newborn chimpanzee playing ping-pong against itself, it was actually local stockists of Tena Lady that screamed loudest.
An interesting set list – fairly light on the hits but heavy on the personally melodramatic torch song – gave the night a perversely satisfying appeal. Michael wasn’t quite delivering what the thousand hen nights might expect though, of course, they loved him all the same. The resigned but defiant WAITING FOR THAT DAY, which opened the second half of the show, the teenage self-pity of A DIFFERENT CORNER and the maturely reflective YOU HAVE BEEN LOVED (dedicated to the loss of his mother and his lover) each carried an affecting emotional intensity, while a truly beautiful cover of completely forgotten Terence Trent D’Arby ballad LET HER DOWN EASY showed that Michael’s major skill is actually as an interpreter. A fact he immediately did his best to scupper with the autotune nonsense of a virtually horizontal take on New Order’s TRUE FAITH.
The giant backdrop flickered high resolution – but annoyingly low concept – video images throughout the show, most of these being sub-standard computer generated car-dashboard-level nonsense, at odds with the expense and care with which everything else was assembled. If there could be any criticism of this show as a spectacle, it would be that there weren’t enough of the conceptual films which occasionally accompanied songs (during JOHN AND ELVIS ARE DEAD ambient soft-focus clips of deceased music stars such as Presley, Lennon, Gaye, and Winehouse, and during ROXANNE a bleak but sympathetic film-noir of prostitutes working the streets).
A stripped back encore, the main band coming to the front of the stage to play percussion, double bass and acoustics (and members of the orchestra free to sit back and clap along rather than provide the lush strings and brass of the previous two hours), saw rousingly cheerful renditions of FREEDOM ’90 and I’M YOUR MAN.
Whatever George Michael’s state of mind and physical wellbeing may be at this moment, this World Tour, though prematurely curtailed, will have gone some way to proving (perhaps most of all to George Michael himself) that as a mainstream entertainer he does still have something to offer.
Photograph by Robert Spasiuk