George Michael, MEN Arena, Manchester <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Fifteen years after his last UK gig, George Michael admits tonight to his relief at playing in front of the first English-speaking audience of his comeback tour. The former Wham! star barely breaks sweat in a commanding performance, as the hangar-like space contracts to a more homely size due to the waves of love from his fans and Michael's grateful response. Hard to imagine that a year ago he threatened to give up music as, trim and in rude health, he makes a mockery of press insinuations that he has been on a self-destructive path.

The only effect a series of tabloid stories seems to have had on his middle-aged fanbase is to make its support even more vociferous, something Michael milks for all he is worth. "Don't believe what you read. I didn't have sexual relations with that van driver!" he exclaims to a barrage of cheers. The crowd is equally thrilled by a greatest hits set that spans his solo career, from the funky disco of "Outside" to the charming "Faith".

Michael is only let down by the large quota of ballads in his set, with his measured vocal lacking sufficient soul impact to carry the slower numbers, most notably a limp "Jesus to a Child". Instead he relies on the power of his backing singers, who come out to join him for the gospel-inflected and still impressive "Father Figure".

The backing band adds neat touches to the bombastic mix of house beats and trad soul, and a screen offers up clever visuals, though none as dramatic as the 50ft inflatable George Bush being fellated by a bulldog that emerged during the anti-war "Shoot the Dog".

When Michael released "Shoot..." in 2002, critics gasped at this apparent stab at States-side career suicide. Less comented upon was the song's banality, a metaphor stretched too far. Tonight, it's perhaps telling how little the singer has to say about the issue, even though he takes off his tinted glasses for, he tell us, the first time on stage this tour. "I hope we can get through this bad time," he says, earnestly.

Also disappointing is this year's "An Easier Affair", in which Michael admits to once having kidded himself that he was suited to "the straight life". His smug attitude lacks the warmth of "Freedom 90", which closes the show after the generous selection of older material. Michael also fails to inject "Careless Whisper" with the plaintiveness of his younger self, instead showing off a brilliant smile that suggests it will be a while before he needs to regret anything again.

Touring to 15 December ( www.georgemichael.com)

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