Venue: The Forum, Inglewood (Wednesday, June 25)
The Forum audience gave George Michael a special present just before the second half of his two-hour performance: a spontaneous arena-wide "happy birthday to you" for the English singer, who turned 45 on Wednesday.
There were more birthday rounds toward the end of the night, including one from his band, plus a cake from actress Bo Derek. But Michael already had given his fans the gift of a stylish, career-spanning show as part of his first North American tour in 17 years, returning to this venue after two decades.
Wearing all black and in glasses, Michael still looks a touch boyish, though he clearly is heading into middle age -- like a good part of his audience that included soccer moms and dads and other couples, gay and straight. Opening with "Waiting (Reprise)," he set the night's theme with lyrics such as "there's a way back for every man" and proved he's on top of his game on his own terms.
By halfway through the evening, Michael had the full house dancing and singing along without the need for a phalanx of dancers and production numbers with myriad costume changes (are you listening, Madonna?).
The staging certainly was impressive, full of dazzle, sparkle and rainbow hues of lighting coupled with vivid video images. A trio of screens included one rolling up from the stage floor onto the center of the three-tier scaffolding where Michael's band played, while a wide catwalk led to another smaller stage at the center of the arena.
Yet despite all the flash and glitz, the music always came first, the arrangements big but tasteful and even sometimes surprisingly understated for the more subtle songs.
He picked up the pace with pulsing "Fastlove" and the bouncy "I'm Your Man," dating back to his mid-'80s start in the bubblegum-poppy Wham! as black-and-white footage of those so-young days appeared on the screens. Those Wham! tunes received some of the biggest screams and cheers, including the funky strut of "Everything She Wants."
A gospel-styled "One More Try," accompanied only by piano, found him interacting in the round with his coed sextet of backing singers. He struck a musical equilibrium between the ballads and upbeat songs, though some of the Eurotrash dance club material came off a bit like filler.
The second half kicked off with the Bo Diddley-borrowed beat of the semi-acoustic "Faith," but it was a trio of numbers that suggested Michael's possible future direction. A jazzy, dead-on version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" was followed by his torchy cover of the Police's "Roxanne" and a slinky take on "Kissing a Fool," the latter two performed on the smaller center arena stage.
Commenting on California now allowing "people like him" to marry, he dedicated "Amazing" to his partner, the first of a trio of thumpy dance anthems that also included "Flawless (Go to the City)" and "Outside."
The first encore brought the ballad "Praying for Time," coming off as a wish for social and perhaps even political change. Then came that junior prom slow dance "Careless Whisper," taking many in the crowd back to high school or even middle school. After audience and band birthday wishes, a soul-shout take on "Freedom '90" finished up the show.
Some recent news stories have quoted Michael as saying he's too old to be a pop star. But this show proved that he transcended simple pop idol status a while ago. That's the providence of kids, who aren't his audience anymore. Their parents are, and you know what? That's more than OK.