Firstly, I would like to make a confession and provide some context. I am, by accident a huge George Michael fan. At school, I was never a Wham fan and at one end-of-exams (and school) social event dressed up as George in some clobber obtained from a charity event for a couple of quid – a blond wig that just did not take to the die when I tried to colour it in George’s shame, a very loose, striped-white sort of pyjama top which hung over a rather tight pair of leather-effect black jeans borrowed from a vegetarian friend at the time. A friend took on the role of Andrew Ridgley ‘playing’ a wooden, fake electric guitar that my brother made. We were high on adrenaline and grooved to a lively vocal audience in the school drama studio on-board a couple of wobbly tables. Oh, and I seem to recall being barefooted dancing in slippery-cold baked beans at one point – where they came from I do not know.
Fast forward some months. I moved to London in the late 1980’s. By chance I noticed an AIDS charity concert at Wembley Arena advertised. There was a stellar list of stars on the rota including Boy George, Alison Moyet, Jimmy Somerville, Kim Wilde and of course George Michael. That concert was a turning-point in my life. Accompanied by only piano, I heard the voice of an angel and the rest is history, influencing my music as a listener and songwriter.
Since that notable event, I have seen George live in concert on numerous occasions over the years. What astonished me was how he sung better and better, with every tour. When he passed it was truly like losing a member of my own family.
I have seen Rob Lamberti on the TV winning “Stars in Your Eyes” and he did leave an impression. However, when he played last year at the Blackwood Miners Institute, I just couldn’t bring myself to see any George Michael impersonator. However, I gave in last night and so glad I did.
On arrival with my partner-in-crime for the evening, Justin, we were quite impressed to see the staging and lights ready for the performance. The audience trickled in a little too politely, probably seventy-percent female; ex-Wham fans perhaps, some in girl groups, others with their partners. By 8pm the venue was just about full.
A troupe of about a dozen Philharmonic audience members and conductor sat in their places on the one side of the stage, and the band members (some ex Wham musicians in fact) to the right. They were joined by four backing singers.
The show starts with that characteristic, long deep bass and string introduction that any “George Lovelies” will be very familiar with. This works very well in a large stadium but perhaps not quite so at Saint David’s Hall – maybe a tweaking point to note to the tour sound guys.
I named that tune in two notes I think, it was Father Figure; so iconic and a great choice to open with. George enters middle stage on top of lighted steps. The crowd roars. George was sporting a peachy-orange coloured jacket, not one I recall him wearing specifically. Sitting from row “M”, there is a good resemblance to George, especially Rob’s head with what apparently the exact same make of iconic sun glasses George wore.
George was of course a man of style, mingling with moguls of the fashion world. If I could offer a little constructive “fine-tuning” advice to Rob, maybe drop jacket sizes a notch or two – not just me, but the same advice from Justin and my Mum who I showed a few pics and video clips. I mention this because attending a tribute concert sets-up several expectations, differently to a non-tribute artist. A tribute should look, sound and behave as closely to the artists they imitate.
Back to the concert…
Like George, Rob talks to the audience in between songs. He mentioned he had been nervous with the build-up, a little self-deprecating, just like George in fact. The orchestra and Rhodes organ move straight into One More Try – I get goose-pimples immediately. The backing singers are stunning, Rob shows great control at the end of this song especially.
Next, it’s time to get the audience moving. Fast Love is an ideal choice for this. That jacket still in sight though. Moving forward, and back in time with the first of six Wham numbers. Rob’s experience certainly shines through having done this job for 25+ years. Wow! “Shake-up the Grove Rob”, you certainly got the George moves n’ grooves as you would expect. The performance is infectious and the audience much less timid, standing to dance.
Time for a slow-down and one of George’s exquisite ballads, and a personal favourite – A Different Corner. The very effective orchestra joins Rob who is sat down on a stool getting intimate with the audience. I am glad to say that he has made his first outfit change, much more befitting of George. This was a first-class performance, Rob shows he has full-range capabilities. The backing singers are haunting and for a moment you get moments and reflections of George. A very powerful ballad.
“Let’s not get too melancholy”, Rob must have been thinking, as he slips back into Wham with Club Tropicana. By now the audience is well-trained, bopping to this classic, showing their ages – wow what memories! Rob’s confidence builds.
Next, we have Cowboys and Angels, a Symphonica-esq production; lingering piano, sax, pizzicato stings – it has it all. This song shows moments of George’s vocal grain. There was a very brief glimpse of nervousness as Rob takes off his specs briefly. I can imagine prolonged impostor syndrome if I was doing his job.
Back in proper ballad mode, with tones of Eastern promise and tribute to Rob’s appearance on “Stars in Your Eyes” Jesus to A Child is delivered. An emotional song George wrote within a week of the death of his mother.
To finish off the first set, we end with a great duet with one talented backing singer – I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me). George excelled with his choice of covers. This was an iconic song of the 80s with George and Aretha Franklin.
Second half…the audience pour in, back to their seats. This time, not so timid. Rob makes a serious delivery with a performance of Outside. Quite outstanding, the audience scream as he performs in full American cop outfit and ‘leather’ gloves – quite raunchy. Keeping up the pace we go back to Wham o’clock with Edge of Heaven and another outfit change. After a rather moving and heartfelt arrangement of Praying for Time, the audience is delighted with two great acoustic performances – Waiting, from the Listen Without Prejudice album and a Wham iconic original, Freedom.
Band and orchestra back in gear giving us an excellent performance of Amazing – it’s just so 90’s. Just when you think that things can’t get better, a very talented sax player takes centre-stage with an arrangement that blends into a reminder of what we have not had yet. Yes, this is Careless Whisper, my favourite song in the whole-wide-world. If you have ever tried out this song yourself in karaoke, then you will know just how difficult it is to sing. Rob does not let us down. He reaches the parts that other George Michael tributes cannot reach. We really are treated to the best-to-last with this last song of the evening. But don’t worry, if you think there is still one song missing you will be right. After a mega thank you applause from a happy audience Rob steps back on stage with a superb performance of another one of my personal favourites, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. As Rob points out, Elton is not around for the duet, but we get a great stand-in from one of the backing singers again. Finally, finally, the audience is set back-up into up-beat mode with Freedom 90.
So, what did I think of tonight’s tribute? To be honest I was rather impressed. Beforehand, I though that if Rob was ten-percent as good as George I would be happy. In actual fact, he was much more. As a tribute package, Rob, by-and-large ticked all the boxes. We will never be able to match him or anyone to George. It must be easy to fall in and out of a character that is not yourself. What I will remember from tonight’s performance are great songs from my icon and moments and flashes of George’s vocals. I thoroughly recommend and will see Rob again.