One of the most overlooked of the mega-pop stars from the 1980s, George Michael’s live performance is thoroughly enjoyable because there’s nothing threatening about his musical presence. He’s a talented writer and performer, but his virtuosity doesn’t have the power to awe you in the way that Prince’s ability can. His dancing, compared to Michael Jackson and Madonna, leaves a little to be desired. He’s nowhere as iconic as Bruce Springsteen, at least not in the United States. His voice is reliable and moving, but he feels no pressure to use it to bring down the house. He seems to have little embarrassment over, or desire to explain away, the public slips in his personal life. He’s totally affable on stage, which is no easy feat, and his pleasure is contagious. When he calls this audience the best of the tour to date, his smile can barely contain what you might call unabashed glee.
Certainly as self-effacing as a person who’s moved 80 million units can be (perhaps because he’s been away for so long), he seems genuinely appreciative of the crowd’s approval. On his first tour of North America in 17 years, with only occasional recorded output and almost no play on hit radio or MTV in over a decade (can Limp Bizkit’s cover of “Faith” possibly count?), he might have been wondering whether his audience was still be out there. His New York crowd does not disappoint. There are more than a few “Choose Life” shirts, and at least one man who went to great lengths to re-create Michael’s most famous look from the Faith-years. People line up for pricey souvenirs and no one seems too ashamed to dance along to the show (Michael’s own dance moves are enough to get you on your feet, but certainly not enough to make you feel self-conscious). For such a major attraction he has a surprising need to look for affirmation in his songs, a tricky and sometimes unattractive vulnerability to put across; but tonight, with each volley, he finds it almost without exception from a packed Madison Square Garden.
Aside from three immense video displays that keep the visuals bright and humming along, he keeps the stage almost entirely to himself during the two-hour show. His eleven-piece band is stacked somewhat anonymously, like my Ford Focus around the corner in the $25 lot, on three levels in between the screens. Michael does go out of his way to graciously acknowledge them as the evening closes and he occasionally brings his four back-up singers down onto the stage with him for some jumbled, spontaneous, unaffected dance moves that add to the loose, enjoyable feel of the night. There are no drum solos, no guitar faces, no vocal histrionics, and no pre-arranged dance routines or numbers. He does bring a small portion of his band down: Once to center stage for “Faith”, and again to the end of the stage’s catwalk for three songs, including a lounge-take on The Police’s “Roxanne”.
Otherwise, the set hums along at a largely up-tempo pace. He finds room for two Wham! Songs (“Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper”, which draw possibly the loudest response of the evening) as well as the majority of his solo hits (he leaves out “Monkey” and “I Want Your Sex” from the Faith album and, not surprisingly, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”). The performances stick like glue to the originals, down to sampled drum and keyboard sounds to match the recorded versions, though the performances never feel bottled. His sound rarely strays too far from his take on club-pleasing, early ‘90s dance, and remains determined, at least as much as any of his ‘80s contemporaries, to follow his particular vision wherever it leads him.
Closing the night with “Freedom”, he is almost instantly drowned out by the audience sing-along. It is a tiny bit nostalgia, perhaps, though the audience is too caught up in the moment to be looking back. While the video screens play synchronized snippets from the song’s video, Michael touches all points of the stage. As the models on the jumbo screens lip sync along, Michael leads the crowd forward. Video jukeboxes explode on cue and a discarded leather jacket burns. The audience is almost entirely old enough to have known the song when it was still popular and they couldn’t be happier to have George Michael back after all these years, even if it may be for the last time. It feels good to know, 25 years on, that he’s stuck around and found vindication, just like he always hoped he would. Meanwhile, Christy, Cindy, Linda, and Naomi remain frozen in time, larger than life and safe from aging.