George Michael, Sport Paleis, Antwerp</br>Bruce Springsteen, Wembley Arena, London

Call the cops: old George is smokin'
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The Independent Culture

How did we never guess? If ever you're channel-hopping and you catch the video to "Club Tropicana" by Wham!, featuring the perma-tanned George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley lounging in the sun with gazes of mutual appreciation, it seems inconceivable that nobody sniffed the slightest whiff of gayness at the time. Looking back, in the period between the demise of Wham! and his very public outing in a Los Angeles gents' lavatory in 1998 - a period during which much of his output was characterised by ponderous, soul-searching balladry - something was clearly weighing heavily on George's mind.

His reaction to the toilet incident - you'll remember the single "Outside", and the glorious video featuring dancing LAPD cops - was exemplary and impeccable, and ever since, he's acted and sounded like a man liberated.

The gutter press hounds have had plenty of material to get their fangs into this year, with three drugs incidents and three driving incidents (two of them combined drugs-driving ones).

There are, however, corners of the world where people are blissfully ignorant of George's supposed career-death. The first thing I hear outside Antwerp's enormous Sport Paleis is a charmingly spunky Walloon repeatedly screaming "Has anyone got any fuckin' teekets?", as though the Anglo-Saxon swear word will magically make their availability more likely.

If the 25 Live tour is anything, it's big. On a screen taller than giants, partially hiding a 17-piece band accommodated on three tiers, falling stars (you see what he did there?) twinkle slowly to the floor, while an invisible George sings "Waiting", with its lyrics about wishing to "right those wrongs" (see what he did there?). Suddenly the screen parts, "tonight, Matthew"-style, the neon animations and computerised mirrorballs dazzle the eyes, he steps out in suit, shirt and shades, and we're hit with a sublime a one-two of "Go to the City" and "Fastlove".

This disco-tastic mode (see also: "Too Funky", "Outside") is when Michael's at his best, and if there's one criticism of this show, it's that too often he kills the mood with those early-Nineties chin-strokers. "Praying For Time", tellingly, is accompanied by what looks like a giant Nurofen logo. After an interminable "Jesus to a Child", he asks, "Have you got any energy left?" One is inclined to mutter "Yes, but no thanks to you..."

Pacing aside, this show is spectacular and life-affirming. "Faith" raises the already-high roof, as do three tracks from the Wham! era: "Careless Whisper", a storming "I'm Your Man" (that couplet "I wanna take you home and make you/But they tell me it's a crime" making a lot more sense in retrospect), and the imponderably funky "Everything She Wants" (blatantly Wham!'s finest moment). It's proof that, if guilty feet have got no rhythm, then guilt-free feet have plenty.

Wembley Way's jammed with broken ticket touts on a last-chance sales drive. Bruce Springsteen's fans are, if anything, even more rabid than Dylanists, and the fact that his current tour features only a handful of his own songs hasn't deterred them. I hear just one call for "Born to Run", and that was probably a joke. At one point I think they're booing him, but it turns out to be a low call of "Bruuuuce".

Springsteen's latest album comprises reworkings of the songs of Pete Seeger, the legendary protest singer whose songs ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone", "If I Had a Hammer", "Turn, Turn, Turn") were covered - and coveted - by the Sixties generation, and who, as one of The Weavers (along with Woody Guthrie) was blacklisted as a Communist during the McCarthy era. (Unusually, this was accurate: Seeger was a card-carrying Stalinist.) He also, legend has it, objected to Dylan going electric, although he denies it now.

Present tense intended. You could be forgiven for assuming Seeger was dead. Not quite, but the 87-year-old is frail of voice and body, so it falls to an upstart of 57 to tour his songs around the world.

Springsteen's most famous sidekicks are elsewhere: Steve Van Zandt scowling his way through the dying episodes of The Sopranos, and Nils Lofgren on a tour of his own. His 17-piece Seeger Sessions band area ragged ensemble, dressed in Depression garments like extras from They Shoot Horses, Don't They?; they adapt Seeger's songs in a cajun, bon-temps-roulez style, relocating them from New Jersey to New Orleans.

Seeger's tales of dustbowl woe are not devoid of humour: "My Oklahoma Home" contains the couplet "Mister, as I bent and kissed her, she was picked up by a twister/My Oklahoma woman blowed away..." Oddly, for a commie, Seeger was fond of arranging religious slave spirituals like "We Shall Overcome"; "Jacob's Ladder" brings out the worst in the fans, swinging their pants and happy-clapping on the on-beat, like old ladies in a nursing home sing-song.

The show's at its most powerful when drawing the obvious parallels between wars present (Iraq), past (Vietnam) and very past. "Mrs McGrath" (trad arr Seeger) is the tale of a young man who goes off to fight, and comes home with wooden pegs where his legs used to be. Springsteen's own "Devils and Dust", during which his legs-akimbo, I-am-shooting-you-with-my-guitar-gun poses seem slightly inappropriate, rams the point home.

On his website, Springsteen campaigned vociferously for a Democrat vote during the recent mid-terms. He assures us that "Some semblance of sanity has returned to the united States... but damn, it was close."

Against this sombre background, honky tonk knees-ups like "Open All Night" (from his own Nebraska) seem incongruous, and the finale - the nursery rhyme "Froggy Went a Courtin' " - plain damn weird.

Somewhere - not in Heaven (yet), but maybe in the Hudson Valley - Pete Seeger is laughing.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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