x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

George Michael and Alicia Keys, Zayed Sport City, Abu Dhabi

So indestructible is the essence of George Michael's hits, he can even afford to disguise them.

George Michael performs at Zayed Sport City on Monday.
George Michael performs at Zayed Sport City on Monday.

From not being a music venue at all to hosting two of the biggest stars on the planet simultaneously is a bit of a leap. Zayed Sport City is groaning at the seams. Glammed-up hordes flood the stadium; the queue for shawarma could reduce a grown man to tears. George Michael and Alicia Keys are in town, and Abu Dhabi has heard their call.

Keys bounds on stage dressed as if for a Sesame Street appearance. She's in high-waisted jeans, braces and a sequined T-shirt that depicts a beetle - or possibly a ladybird. It's an early signal: we're in for the down-home Alicia rather than the ritzy, Bond-scoring one. Her band flexes its muscles in a bluesy squall and for a moment it looks as if some of Jack White's raucousness might have rubbed off on her during their Quantum of Solace duet.

Alas, it isn't to be. With her second number, You Don't Know My Name, the tone for the set is established: it's a remarkably consistent gumbo of soul, funk and jazz, all represented in their most muso-ish strains. There's a good deal of rather noodly soloing. Midway through Karma, Keys starts introducing her musicians and a jazz flautist appears out of nowhere to take a turn at vamping in the spotlight. The band starts to look like a rest home for musically incontinent session men.

For all this, it must be admitted that Keys is a remorselessly polished performer. Her voice is smooth, controlled and untiring. Her Chopin-goes-boogie-woogie piano playing is a minor marvel. And when she commiserates with the lovelorn during How Come You Don't Call or promises to take us to Spanish Harlem during Karma, she's a very warm presence. Still, as spacious jazz-funk workout follows teary torch song, hooks grow scarce. The catchiest item in the set is 2007's No One, which sounds like a gussied-up version of Where is the Love? by the Black-Eyed Peas. It's a rare moment of poppy focus.

The same complaint could hardly be levelled at George Michael. Even at his most cynically scene-hopping, his most cussedly chorus-shy, his every lyric and melody seems precision-engineered to lodge in the deep tissue of the brain. I was bemused to find I knew about half the words to 1996's Spinning the Wheel, a song whose title I only learned during the show. So indestructible is the essence of his hits, he can even afford to disguise them. I'm Your Man comes in over a declasse hip-hop backing which sounds for all the world like Tone Loc's Funky Cold Medina. "I'm just teasing you, darlings," he coos, as the original's Motown stomp comes blasting back like a cavalry charge.

The design of the show is as campy and over-the-top as you could wish: glitterballs and lightning bolts flash on the video screens behind the stage. The band contains at least two drummers and is split over two floors, Jailhouse Rock-style, with soloists occasionally venturing out into the spotlit. Yet when Michael sings Father Figure, he fits the part rather better than is comfortable these days: the Athena icon of the Faith video has given way to a stocky, salt-and-pepper-bearded bloke in a baggy suit. Nevertheless, the voice - that unmistakable croon, at once preppy and soulful - remains intact.

Indeed, it gets a welcome workout on a trio of covers. From his Songs From the Last Century album, Roxanne is pared down to a jazzy shuffle, while Ewan McColl's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face comes on like a major-key counterpart to Ne Me Quitte Pas. Michael even, with confessed impertinence, has a crack at the sainted Nina Simone's Feeling Good. Remarkably, he pulls it off. This show has been billed as the singer's last, and there are signs that he may be fretting over his legacy. The video screens keep filling with iconic images of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana and so on - Michael's longed-for peers, one supposes. There's a defiant edge to the demand: "Anybody here remember the Eighties?" which introduces Everything She Wants.

"A huge thanks for everybody who's stuck with me for the past 25, 26 years," he says as the night is winding down. "I know I haven't always made it easy." This gets a laugh. Yet the dominant mood is oddly businesslike. Even during the victory lap of Careless Whisper and Freedom 90, there's no excess sentiment. As finales go, it's a brisk, even a jaunty, affair. I wouldn't be surprised if he's got another booking lined up.
elake@thenational.ae