George Michael kicks off London's new Wembley Stadium

(AFP)
Updated: 2007-06-10 09:06

LONDON - British pop star George Michael put his troubles behind him as he rocked Wembley with the first concert at the giant new stadium Saturday.

Whatever his leisure pursuits and courthouse dramas, the singer has apparently lost none of his fan base, which turned out in force as the new 90,000-seat stadium was tried out as a concert venue for the first time.

Both Michael and the cavernous bowl passed the test in somewhat of a homecoming for the north London-born star.

Michael had emerged Friday from the nearby Brent Magistrates Court having been sentenced to a two-year driving ban and 100 hours' community service after pleading guilty to driving while unfit through drugs in October.

The 43-year-old said he was off to prepare for the biggest show of his life -- and he emerged Saturday to a deafening welcome on the Wembley stage.

Wearing a black t-shirt and trousers, a jacket and his trademark sunglasses, the delighted star burst straight into his "25 Live" tour retrospective with his 1996 hit "Fastlove".

Michael sat down for his third number "Father Figure" before being the first artist to yell "Good evening, Wembley!"

"I'm actually here, I don't believe it," he told the crowd to huge cheers.

"For the most amazing, God-given 25 years, I thank you all."

The song "Shoot the Dog", about British Prime Minister Tony Blair's closeness to US President George W. Bush, came with a giant inflatable cartoon Bush on stage -- complete with a strategically-placed British bulldog.

The second half was broadcast live on British television and the darkness truly brought the concert to life.

And Michael -- clearly looking to put his travails behind him and freer to speak now his court case is over -- had some barbed words for the British press, which has hounded him over his admissions of drug-taking and fondness for casual gay sex.

He brought the house down with "Freedom! 90", "Faith", "I'm Your Man" and encore song "Careless Whisper".

The new Wembley, bedevilled by construction delays and spiralling costs, is the stadium with the second largest-capacity in Europe.

Unlike the old Wembley, which closed in 2000 and was demolished in 2003 after some legendary gigs, the new stadium was designed with concerts in mind, and the sound came across clear, sharp and loud.

The original 1923 Empire Stadium's greyhound track layout made it a long way to the back and many artists -- particularly solo performers -- struggled to project their stage show across such a distance.

Slick performer Michael, often on stage alone, pulled it off during his livelier songs but the stadium seemed oddly quiet in the slower numbers -- a quirk football fans have noted about dull passages in matches.

Michael is no stranger to Wembley: he played at the old venue at 1985's Live Aid, the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, the 1998 concert for Nelson Mandela -- and Wham!'s farewell gig in 1986.

His "25 Live" European stadium tour, which started on May 12 on Coimbra, Portugal, now takes him around Britain after a second Wembley concert Sunday, then off for a string of dates across the continent, ending in Athens on July 26.

Michael will pass on the Wembley baton to rockers Muse, who are next up on June 16 and 17, before the July 1 concert marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, princess of Wales and the July 7 climate change awareness Live Earth gig, featuring Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

US metal stars Metallica play on July 8 before English football returns home again with the FA Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser to the Premiership football season, on August 5.



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