Perhaps I have gotten jaded over the years, or I may just be getting old. It sometimes seems to me that the age of real stars is past. I’m not talking about divas, mind you – that, today, is mostly a matter of attitude and ego – but about stars, artists with so much talent and purity of performance that they are worthy of the title. Such stardom elevates a performance by someone of that caliber to an experience, rather than a night out.
George Michael may be among the last of the genuine stars. I will be honest in coming straight out and admitting that my feeling this way surprised me. After the last concert of his I attended a few years ago in the Amsterdam ArenA I was sorely disappointed. I had expected more – better acoustics for one – and left the show unsatisfied. It wasn’t his vocals – those are always near perfect and they were that night too – but there was just something…missing. I thought that, perhaps, his days of touring should be behind him.
This is why, when my sister gave me a ticket to George Michael Symphonica at Ahoy’, Rotterdam for my birthday, I was happy with the gift, but hesitant. My trepidation only increased after reading a review of an earlier Symphonica concert, which echoed my thoughts after the ArenA concert.
Nevertheless, yesterday evening I went to see George Michael Symphonica at Ahoy’, and from the very first note, all my fears were allayed. The concert was, quite simply, stunning. Not an event, but an experience.
When I entered the hall, I sensed a genuine air of anticipation. The view of the stage had been obscured by a red satin curtain, which for the duration of the first song remained closed. Such touches, of course, add to the excitement in expectation of the final pay-off: seeing George Michael do what he does in his own, inimitable way.
When the curtain was raised, the man we had all come to see was revealed: he was in fine form, dressed impeccably as always, in a dark, tailored suit and wearing his trademark sunglasses (possibly not even overkill, considering the brightness of not only the stage lights, but also the projection screen behind him).
What followed was a series of refreshing interpretations of songs by other artists, as well as renditions of his own songs.
His cover of New Order’s “True Faith” – released earlier this year for Comic Relief – was a thoughtful reinterpretation of the original. Since the release of “True Faith”, much has been made of his use of electronic voice modification on this track – he also used it during his live performance last night – to create the sound for the single. I imagine most of the criticism will have stemmed from the fact that hearing the effect will have taken some getting used to, especially after hearing nothing but pure, unprocessed vocals from him over the course of his entire singing career.
“Russian Roulette” (originally by Rihanna) was poignant and intense, highlighted by the addictive percussion mimicking a pounding heartbeat, which in turn was underscored by red lights pulsing in time with the rhythm.
He also delivered a sensitive tribute to Amy Winehouse by singing his version of “Love is a Losing Game”, performed in clear admiration and compassionate memory. The song was accompanied by pictures of her on the screen behind him.
I think that for most people, though, the true enjoyment lay in hearing George Michael perform his own songs. For me, “Cowboys and Angels” stood out, but that is almost certainly due to my favoring that song over almost all others in his repertoire. For the audience, hearing the opening notes of “A Different Corner” after hearing a series of cover songs resulted in an almost palpable sense of release.
At the end of the concert, there was a little treat in the form of a surprise performance by George Michael and his four backing vocalists singing “This Little Light of Mine” in close harmony, producing some joyous gospel sounds indeed.
His performance was superb, if by no means perfect. His voice showed signs of fatigue, especially towards the end of the evening. This is not surprising: he has been performing full force with a symphony orchestra for well over two months now, with in excess of thirty shows behind him, and another thirty shows ahead of him. Certainly his age will also be playing a part here (he is 48 now), but that is not a bad thing at all. His voice is as rich as it ever was, and experience – both happy and painful – has added an extra dimension, lending maturity to his unique sound.
Throughout the whole evening, he appeared to be avoiding the high notes, which was especially obvious during “Kissing a Fool”. No damage done: in the low notes his sound is still full and luscious, but the drop in register on the whole became very clear during the last performance of the evening: an up-tempo medley of “Amazing”, “I’m Your Man” and “Freedom ’90”. The audience, invited to sing along, seemed to have some difficulty making itself heard because the lower key was a little problematic.
For me, what made the whole experience perfect is this: I love watching him sing. He sings with his whole body, his eyes closed for half, maybe even most of the time. George Michael creates right in front of your eyes; he doesn’t just repeat, but infuses each song with genuine emotion and you can see it happen.
The concert itself leaves you with food for thought. Each song seems to have been carefully picked to illustrate an aspect of his life that bears illuminating. And in each song, there is something to think about for everyone. The sequencing of the songs adds to the story, so that the concert feels like George Michael takes you on a personal journey with him, from his struggle coming out with his sexual orientation and being accepted for who he is (“Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright), through the loss of loved ones, to addiction, and a failed relationship. Some of the songs are so personal, for example: “Where I Hope You Are”, that I found the concert almost confrontational at times. The result is an intense, thought-provoking experience that still resonates well after the concert has ended.