"I'm fully aware it has not always been easy to be a George Michael fan," the singer himself said last night at the TD Banknorth Garden.
Whether he was referring to the secret shame of those who outwardly pledged allegiance to the Smiths but secretly got down to "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" in the '80s, or his more recent tabloid woes, it's unlikely anyone in the crowd of 10,325 found it particularly difficult to cheer last night.
Michael made it effortless, which was even more impressive given that he was an hour late taking the stage. (His flight was delayed because of bad weather.) The well-behaved crowd was rewarded with a remarkable two-hour and 10-minute set that proved to any skeptics that a 17-year layoff from touring North America had not robbed him of any of his blue-eyed soul power. It helped that the sound was amazingly pristine.
Michael, in a black suit and looking fit, moved with equal parts elegance and funky charm. He spared no expense in terms of staging, performing on an enormous curved stage that doubled as a video screen. His equally large band - including six backup vocalists - was spread out on three tiers of scaffolding.
Promoting his recently released career retrospective "Twenty-Five," Michael seemed to enjoy throwing himself back into even the oldest songs - perhaps one perk of the long layoff - and like the man himself the tunes have aged well, suffering only a smidge of that unfortunate "ah yes, the '80s" keyboard sound. (Michael did use a teleprompter, although he didn't appear to rely on it.)
Since at heart, even during Wham!'s most day-glo phase, these were soul songs, even nostalgic trifles like the Motown stomper "I'm Your Man" and the liquid bouncer "Everything She Wants" stood up as solid pop constructions. The tracks from Michael's solo career fared even better, as the tough dance edges of "Hard Day," the silky smooth "Father Figure," and the glorious gospel pleader "One More Try" rang out confidently.
Some fans might have traded a few of the covers and lesser-known tracks for a couple more hits - "Go-Go," "Monkey," and "Praying for Time" didn't make the set list - but each had its charms, with a jazzy version of the Police's "Roxanne," accompanied by footage of the red-light district of Amsterdam, sliding elegantly into "Kissing a Fool."
Throughout the evening, Michael was gracious and self-deprecating, offering big thanks and asking for forgiveness for his tardiness. Due to the late start he was still performing as we were typing, and he finished up with a jubilant version of "Freedom '90."
Michael has made noises about this being his last tour. That would be a mistake.