Rock column, Mail on Sunday, October 1 2006

George Michael
Le Zenith, Toulouse
FIVE STARS

George Michael’s European tour is entitled 25Live, to mark the fact that he has been in the music business for 25 years. It could just as well be called 15Elusive, to mark the fact that it is his first tour since 1991.

It is his first tour since a lot of things: first since the scene in the Los Angeles public convenience, first since the pitched battle with his record company, first since he turned 30, never mind 40, first since losing his mother to cancer and his lover to Aids, first since the days of endless Tory Government, and first since the death of Princess Diana, whose hairstyle George once shared.

He may have been an idiot lately on the sex’n’drugs front but he has something that is getting rarer in an increasingly regimented industry: rarity value. About a third of the fans packed into an arena on the outskirts of Toulouse on Friday night were too young to have seen him before.

He starts, appropriately, in the shadows, singing Waiting (Reprise) from Listen Without Prejudice, presumably chosen for the line it culminates with - ‘Is it too late to try again?’ We hear his voice but see only darkness, stars on a giant upright screen, and a pulsating red line. Then a slot opens in the screen, and George, who always had a natural showmanship, strolls through.

He looks more the way he used to than he has for years. There’s no big moustache, no jeans or leather. His hair is a leaner version of the old bouffant, but no greyer. He’s slim and wearing a black suit, black shirt and shades. The suit is shiny and pop-starry, but the striking thing is that he doesn’t look very gay. After that spectacular coming-out, could he be thinking about going back in?

He bows, smiles broadly, soaks up the warm acclaim of the crowd, and says, in English, ‘OK Toulouse, you ready for some fun?’ He has so many musicians that they are arrayed in three tiers, either side of the screen, on what appears to be the world’s biggest bathroom shelf unit. It leaves him very alone, but there turn out to be good aesthetic reasons for it. The big screen and the floor under George’s feet are one continuous roll of electronic material, carrying video, graphics and lights, while two smaller screens, either side of the stage, do the routine job of relaying the action to those at the back.

Many rock designers get drunk on all the possibilities at their fingertips, but this is a bold, clean look which provides a feast for the eyes without either starving or overloading the brain. The design is the sharpest I’ve seen on an arena stage since U2’s Elevation tour in 2001. Madonna, whose shows George has been known to check out, should return the compliment.

Madonna’s weakness in concert is a tendency to dispense with most of her hits. George doesn’t make that mistake, although there are only a meagre two from his Wham! period; Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go appears, alas, only on a T-shirt at the merchandising stall. His solo material has long since sorted itself into two modes, pumping dance tracks and pensive, often agonised, ballads. For most of this two-hour show, he alternates between them. The decision would horrify a DJ, but it works.

The first highlight is Fastlove, his last number one single (from 1996) and a dance track so melodic and soulful that it it almost a ballad as well. It gets the party started as the crowd join in on the ooh, baby-babys, and leads into the rousing pop-soul of Father Figure, for which the six backing singers, all black, emerge from the shelf unit to join George on the video floor.

George has released only two albums of new songs in the 15 years between tours, but there was also a covers album, Songs From The Last Century. It was underwhelming by his standards, but when he dips into it to sing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, it’s a magical detour. Ewan MacColl’s great love song can easily defeat a singer, but George has the range and the solemnity it demands. The fans get out their lighters, of which there is no shortage: smoking has yet to go out of fashion round here.

Praying For Time is beautiful, with a red sun-and-sea backdrop that subtly redirects the words towards global warming. Everything She Wants is the perfect dance-pop song, formidably polished for a track that first appeared on the flipside of a Christmas single. Shoot The Dog, performed with gay abandon and a huge George Bush puppet who gets rather too close to a British bulldog, almost convinces you that George’s excursions into political commentary have been a good idea.

After the interval, there’s the gleaming rockabilly of Faith, the elegant adult pop of Amazing, the cheery stomp of I’m Your Man, the dear old saxophone of Careless Whisper and the exuberance of Freedom. Throughout it all, George keeps his suit on, and, astonishingly, exudes considerable dignity.

Two years ago Elton John said George should get out more. Since then, he has been out cruising on Hampstead Heath and pranging his car in the West End. What he actually needs is to get out less. He ought to be in the recording studio, using his vast talent. This show is a triumphant answer to his own question: it isn’t too late to start again.