POP MUSIC REVIEW : Just Like Old Times : Michael Keeps the Faith for Sellout Crowd

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When George Michael bowed out of the rat race last year--declining to play the concerts or shoot the videos that would sell his second solo album--he pulled the plug on a sky's-the-limit career.

His first album, 1988's "Faith," had sold 14 million copies, won the best-album Grammy and positioned the pouty Englishman as the superstar of the '90s: a strategist with David Bowie's caginess, a performer with Michael Jackson's flash and a record-maker with Elton John's instincts and craftsmanship.

Driven to the edge by the pressures of celebrity, Michael slammed on the brakes when he released "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1" a year ago. As intended, he pretty much deflated the sex-symbol image and accrued some critical respect. As expected, his record sales plummeted.

But at the Forum on Saturday, everything was as charged as ever in Georgeland: a screaming, sellout crowd, a hard-working star and hit after hit (so what if they were mostly three years old and more?).

In his first area show since '88's high-profile "Faith" tour, Michael had it all his way. No pressure to sell new product, the freedom to play whatever songs by whatever artists he likes, the confining sex symbol routine reduced to some good-natured, self-mocking hip thrusts.

That refreshing looseness flowed through a performance that also reasserted the scope of Michael's work. If he still hasn't captured the depth of artistry he is pursuing in his new maturity, he came close at several points, and his decision to turn to ballads at the show's crucial turns--opening the second half after intermission, as the first encore--emphasized that emotional expression, not glitz, is his real stock in trade.

That's not how it looked in the opening moments. When the curtain rose, Michael was posed as the moody pop icon sporting his trademark sunglasses and five-o'clock shadow. But in what might serve as a metaphor for his self-liberation, he soon scrapped the male-model attitude and spent the rest of the show smiling and chatting with unpretentious warmth.

Michael's music is drenched in soul influences, the sultry grooves of Marvin Gaye and the melodic sophistication of Stevie Wonder superseding the Motown-flavored bubble-gum of his early Wham! hits.

His feeling for gospel's ecstatic celebration (a full choir backed a couple of songs) meshes with his taste for Queen-derived grandiosity. And like Elton John, Michael has a gift for combining soul and pop into rich, solid pieces that accommodate accessibility and thoughtful themes.

While the concert (the first of two scheduled nights at the Forum) spotlighted Michael's range as a musician, it showed his limits as a performer. Without the heartthrob image to exploit, he spent most of the show running from one side of the stage to the other, where he mounted staircases and sang to the fans at the sides. Like his incessant pointing of the microphone toward the crowd for the audience-participation effect, it didn't stay interesting very long.

He also adopted a self-congratulatory tone ("Can you think of another of my songs that starts with the letter F ?") that conflicted with the thoughtfulness and generosity he displayed elsewhere (a ringing endorsement of the current demonstrations against Gov. Pete Wilson's gay job-rights bill veto).

The concert's advertised premise--George will play some of his favorite songs by other artists--didn't add up to much. Culture Club, the Temptations, McFadden & Whitehead, Bowie, Elton, Chaka Khan, Soul II Soul . . . Are these random favorites? Do they represent the stature he aspires to? Can we locate the nature of Michael's art by plotting these reference points?

But if the point of Michael's retreat was to allow himself to do what he wants, then a show like this doesn't really need to make sense beyond the immediacy of each moment, be it wrenching ballad or driving funk. On that level, Michael indeed seems to have found his freedom.

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