By Mark Guarino
“Where were you in 1990?”
The question, posed by George Michael to a near-capacity crowd at the United Center Wednesday, was moot. Everyone in attendance was clearly listening to George Michael in 1990, as they were in 1982, in 1987 and, well, any old year between the Reagan and Clinton administrations.
Michael’s show is on a tour billed as a celebration of his 25 years in music, and is his first visit to U.S. concert stages in 17 years. So clearly, there was plenty of lost time to make up, which resulted in a nearly two-hour and thirty-minute show consisting of both songs that suffered from and those that felt freshly uncorked from a nearly 20-year time capsule.
For memory aid purposes, the show was set against a giant, curved screen that dominated the set, showing vintage videos from Michael’s hitmaking years in Wham! and beyond. However, the design effectively compromised the music as it tucked the musicians into faraway, shadowy scaffolding so they became ancillary players disconnected from the singer.
Michael therefore was faced with having to deliver music alone on a broad plain — pacing a cavernous stage and entering the crowd atop a gangway that led to a second stage in the middle of the floor. This turned him, at certain points, from singer to cheerleader. This approach benefited the less remarkable DANCE hits like “Hard Day” and “I’m Your Man” due to their dance rhythms and simple messages, but for others, he just looked like he had too much ground to cover.
His vocals were often drained due to six back-up singers who layered his singing. Not hearing Michael clearly enough was a shame due to his voice, which remains the epitome of smooth, blue-eyed soul. The show felt looser and more natural during a mini-set on the secondary stage where Michael, within arm’s length of actual musicians, performed smoky jazz versions of “Kissing a Fool” plus songs by Nina Simone (“Feeling Good”) and the Police (“Roxanne”). He also took command of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the Roberta Flack hit that, in his hands, sounded particularly sorrowful.
Then came the club-thumpers again. Michael spent much of the late 1990’s through last June in the tabloids, for coming out as a gay man, arrests involving lewd acts and driving mishaps. Now on the other side, he appeared lovable and aloof, a star that also seemed human and — important for this crowd — can smooth over rocky roads through dancing.