Close to his irresistible best. The Mail on Sunday, September 30 2012

George Michael
Manchester Arena

Being a senior rock star means never feeling the need to be prolific, and George Michael takes this further than most. He has released only two albums of new songs in 22 years. And itís not as if he is short of stuff to write about.

When he embarked on the Symphonica tour a year ago, it was his comeback after a spell at Her Majestyís pleasure. Now that the tour has resumed, itís a comeback after a spell in intensive care. Pneumonia seems to have done what prison didnít do, and brought him to at least some of his senses.

He can still be an idiot, as he showed at the Olympic closing ceremony by forcing his new single on us when the situation cried out for an old classic. But here, back in his natural habitat, he is close to his irresistible best.

At the Royal Albert Hall last October, the Symphonica show only half-worked. George sang well and there were some transcendent moments, but the pace was lethargic and the set list groaned under the weight of other peopleís ballads. It was as if he was just getting round to promoting Songs From The Last Century, 12 years too late.

This time, some small adjustments have made a big difference. He slips in a couple more hits, deploying Father Figure early on to stir the faithful with its stately exhilaration. He replaces a sombre Amy Winehouse cover with a belter from Rihanna, Russian Roulette. And while still leaning towards the introverted side of his complex personality, he now lets his inner crowd-pleaser out before the interval, rather than waiting for the encore.

It even helps that we are in a vast modern space. George has always been at home in arenas, with his hefty voice and willingness to work the room (no big star is quicker to trot to either side of the stage and say hello to the fans in the medium-priced seats). And the design works better in an aircraft-hangar than an ornate Victorian hall: itís all elegant economy, mostly black with controlled explosions of colour, a colossal video screen, and the orchestra ringed by a curved black runway, like a Scalextric track. Big can be beautiful.

George too is in black, as ever. When he sits on a stool, with his tan, shades, stubble and crucifix, he looks like the guy on the Greek island who owns all the bars. And sometimes he puts the wrong song on the jukebox: The Policeís Roxanne is too spiky for the supperclub treatment, and slowing down New Orderís True Faith feels more like an insult to their hometown than a tribute.

But most of the time Georgeís love of music shines through. He does a gorgeous version of one of Rufus Wainwrightís best songs, the anti-homophobe ballad Going To A Town; he finds a way to cover a song recorded definitively by David Bowie (Johnny Mathisís Wild Is The Wind); and if the strings are apt to be just a layer of gloop, the horns are a treat, adding both energy and sophistication.

Of his own songs, Waiting For That Day, Praying For Time and A Different Corner all sail through the test of time, and White Light, when not alienating a billion people, turns out to be fine in its place, played at the end as a middle-aged club track. Itís just that one of these days it will occur to him that all his best songs are either slow or mid-tempo.

He doesnít find room for Faith, Careless Whisper or Everything She Wants, let alone Last Christmas. But he does do Iím Your Man and Freedom, the song that kick-started Robbie Williamsís solo career. He is a great singer and a very good songwriter: he just needs to show it more often.

By the end, he is visibly enjoying himself, dancing like the 49-year-old he is, and even wearing a colour Ė a maroon jacket. The crowd pour warmth at him. ĎThank you Manchester,í he says. ĎLove you. And I'll be back on the 9th.í Somewhere inside the tortured, dope-addled, self-absorbed balladeer, there still beats the heart of a showbiz professional.