WHERE AND WHEN: Sheffield Arena, Monday 1st October 2012. COMMENTS: It is a fact that George Michael has one of the most effortlessly attractive voices in mainstream pop and has long been capable of fashioning far better songs than many may believe (though fewer of them than his hardcore apostles believe). But his well-documented propensity for rubbing authority up the wrong way has gradually obscured artistic notice over the last two decades. Whether in the court room taking on his former record label, or in public toilets committing (in the eyes of the law) lewd acts, or crashing his car into a shop-front while enjoying the influence of a minor recreational drug, that high echelon of shenanigan has trumped the value of his work. The fact that a famous stoner coughed his car into a mere High Street chain rather than a desirable boutique added further cheap and tragi-comic tarnish to the notion of an artist in control of great aesthetic judgement. The price of celebrity. It’s a cost which will deeply rankle a man who has taken such care with his creating, and who fought hard for the right to present those creations so ‘correctly’.
A near-death experience in 2011 (due to complications arising from a pneumonia-related illness) at least eventually offered the chance for a spot of lazarus-like barnstorming; a great opportunity for George to lay out a high note catch-up on his career, and reinforce the legend of his musical glories. The grandstanding Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games in August of this year was broadcast live on television to every corner of the universe but George seemed to be commercially opportunistic within that celebration. He played previously unaired material (a new single) at what some considered an inappropriate moment. Ignore the fact that WHITE LIGHT is a highly commercial (though vaguely underachieving) slice of that tastefully polished spectral dance that George Michael does so well and is therefore presumably loved for; it deals with what one would have every cause to presume was a profoundly unsettling personal experience. Performing it may have been deep catharsis. For a man driven by instinct, it may actually have been a choice made on that basis alone. And there’s no accounting for prejudice: George’s “regardless of what is expected” attitude, there and elsewhere, is something critics would champion in other artists.
Whatever it is that’s really going on with the private man behind-the-scenes of George Michael the public projection (and there’s definitely something going on) things out the front of the shop have slipped a touch – occasionally feeling ill-judged and hazily unfathomable. The announcement (via his website) about acute anxiety having caused an entire leg of this current world tour to be cancelled was undoubtedly carefully fine-toothed with a shiny corporate comb, but it was still vaguely reminiscent of Sinead O’Connor’s propensity for a tad too much confused rough-and-ready with the online earnestness. 
So there was a tangible 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 he be turning in? What kind of George Michael would be turning up? Would George Michael, in fact, actually turn up?
Though one couldn’t help but be astonished by how fragile he appeared, how much weight he’d lost and how fidgety and searching his hands looked, it was business as usual for George. And, in-and-of itself, it was all delightfully good-natured business. A lush red gossamer curtain stayed fixed around the semi-circular stage for the first half of opening song THROUGH, and a back-lit George was projected to immense proportion against it. The subtlest movement of this giant silhouette caused chaos for the sound engineers, as what seemed to be several thousand raucous hen nights converged at once in communal orgasm. George clicked his fingers; there were screams and fingers clicked. George swayed his arms above his head; there were screams and swayed arms. As the curtain finally opened and George made his superstar entrance during his second song (dancing in that familiar slightly too-loping way, curiously resembling a newborn chimpanzee playing ping-pong against itself) it was local stockists of Tena Lady who screamed loudest.
An interesting set list, fairly light on hits but heavy on the melodramatic torch song (George, you old drama queen) gave the night a perversely satisfying appeal. The artist wasn’t quite delivering what the thousand hen nights had anticipated – though, of course, they loved him all the same. It’s George, innit? The defiant WAITING FOR THAT DAY, which opened the second half of the show, the breathtaking teenage-tremble of A DIFFERENT CORNER and the maturely reflective YOU HAVE BEEN LOVED (dedicated to his mother and his lover, both lost) each carried an emotional intensity and an authentic truth. A bit like being punched in the face by a bunch of flowers. A beautiful version of entirely forgotten Terence Trent D’Arby ballad LET HER DOWN EASY posited the idea that Michael’s major skill may actually be as an interpreter (curiously, even if that interpretation is of a song of his own). However, he immediately did his best to scupper that theory with the auto-tune riddle of his virtually horizontal nonsense take on New Order’s TRUE FAITH.
The giant backdrop flickered high resolution but annoyingly low concept video images throughout – most of them computer-generated car-dashboard-level rubbish at odds with the tasteful va-va-voom with which everything else was assembled. During JOHN AND ELVIS ARE DEAD ambient soft-focus clips of deceased music stars Presley and Lennon (and Gaye and Winehouse) drifted by warmly and sympathetically. During ROXANNE there was bleak but brilliant film-noir footage of prostitutes working the streets. Both poured a sense of relevance, of social context, into what was otherwise basically an expensively produced ultra-high end chicken-in-a-basket staging.
Whatever George Michael the private man’s state of mind and physical well-being is at this moment, this occasionally flawed but fantastic show went quite some distance to illustrating that George Michael the mainstream artist is back. Those songs, that voice. Impeccable.