Personality plus

Amy Winehouse, Avalon, May 7, 2007
By JON GARELICK  |  May 16, 2007

WHAT? Winehouse’s voice was no mach for the classic soul arrangements, but she did put on a show.

Any number of soul divas could blow the doors off retro-soul upstart Amy Winehouse. Just a couple of weeks ago, Bettye LaVette spilled her guts at Scullers and, at 64, powered more dance moves in one song than 23-year-old Brit chanteuse Winehouse expended all night at Avalon last Monday. But you come to Winehouse for personality and presence more than for pipes, and of those she has plenty to spare.

In the short Avalon set (barely an hour), she and her impeccable backing band, the Dap Kings (also known in these parts for supporting another retro-soul diva, Sharon Jones), played tracks from her Island/Universal release, Back to Black, and her import-only debut, Frank (Island). Here was one gorgeous slow and medium-tempo classic R&B arrangement after another, boosted by a trumpet-tenor-baritone horn section, two guitars, bass, drums, Fender Rhodes piano, and two back-up singer–dancers: skinny black men in skinny black suits and white shirts, with all the right moves.

Wearing a white tank top and low-slung jeans, Winehouse warbled seductively in her smoky English drawl, her Rasta-witch nest of black hair piled high on her head and trailing down her left shoulder to nearly her waist. She held the mic with her right hand and worked the hair with her left — at one point she appealed heavenward, chin lifted to the ceiling, palm upraised. But most of the time she was one cool, sloe-eyed shimmy. Hot stuff.

Winehouse has a reputation as a wild woman that’s fueled in part by the spectacular Back to Black single “Rehab.” But the near-capacity crowd — women in the majority — sang along to almost every tale of broken hearts, bad behavior, and romantic masochism. Frank suggests that her agile voice would do better with a jazz band in a small club than competing with a rock-club sound system. But she is one tantalizing character with an appealing subversive streak. At Avalon, if you knew the lyrics, then you could hear them. Otherwise the show made Back to Black sound better than ever.

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