Music: Pop - She's almost soulful. Really

Whitney Houston Sheffield Arena Gang Starr Astoria, London

Houston, she had a problem. A record company press officer said that the stage lighting was on the blink; the star said later that there was a "technical difficulty" with her voice. Whatever the reason, Whitney Houston's first UK concert for five years started 50 minutes late. Just to add insult to injury, she made up for lost time by dropping two of her songs, but she kept in the two that were sung by her brother, Gary, and her backing vocalists. The fans decamped to the bar. The woman they had paid pounds 40 to see wasn't on stage herself for much more than an hour.

It feels odd, then, to pronounce the concert a triumph, but that's what it must have been if I, a Houstosceptic, was won over. When the show eventually started, all my prejudices seemed about to be vindicated. "Get It Back" was a grim little r'n'b shuffle, hardly aided by Houston's four dancers, who had decided, for reasons of their own, to skip around holding violins and wearing Venetian masks. The diva, meanwhile, strutted imperiously in a floor-sweeping, fake-fur pink Dolce & Gabbana coat. It was horrible.

But when Houston took off the coat the show took off. No longer having to worry about tripping, she turned in a relaxed, intimate performance, surprising us with sudden smiles and throaty laughs, and responding chattily to shouts from the audience. Unless she's a better actress than her films would lead you to believe, she was enjoying herself.

I was astounded. Personally, I'd always assumed that Houston was an android: her perfect physique designed by computer, her creamy skin moulded in plastic, a serial number concealed beneath her immobile hair. For all her beauty, she has exuded as much sex appeal as a Kenwood blender over the years - and considerably less emotion. But on Thursday, she seemed to have undergone a Pinocchio-like transformation into a human being. It may seem over-generous to fete an entertainer for the casualness with which she taps her foot or leans on the piano, but in the world of lip- wobbling power-balladeers, such spontaneity is as unexpected as a potential Tory prime minister coming out of the closet. At a Celine Dion concert, say, every tilt of her head looks rehearsed. Houston, in contrast, wisely leaves the choreographed movements to the dancers. While they rushed through routines that belonged somewhere between a lapdancing club and an aerobics class, their boss upstaged them with a flirt and a joke.

Her young band, too, seemed to be flesh and blood rather than the session robots I'd expected. Fast, funky percussion gave "My Love Is Your Love" a kick it lacks on the record. Boogie-woogie piano did the same for "I Go To The Rock" and a tricky guitar solo for "How Will I Know". Even the dreaded "I Will Always Love You" was almost understated, with Houston accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a piano.

"Oh Lord, it takes a lot of breath to sing that song" she cracked afterwards. The remarkable point was that she did indeed sing it, instead of just using it to demonstrate her larynx's acrobatics. Maybe her new respect for a tune - and the new raspiness to her voice - can be credited to the evening's "technical difficulty". If so, she should have one more often.

Recently, the multi-millionairess has tried to reinvent herself as a streetwise girl-in-the- hood. She is miscast: Houston is no Lauryn Hill, even if she was apparently on her way to a Lauryn Hill fancy-dress party in the "My Love Is Your Love" video. On Thursday, though, it seemed as if a much more dramatic transformation might be in the offing. One day soon, Houston may no longer be just a vocal technician. She could be a soul singer.

Gang Starr have probably sold fewer records in a decade than Whitney Houston sells in a week, but Full Clip, the revered New York duo's 10th anniversary retrospective, is still a unique achievement. Few hip-hop acts have kept going for a dec ade. And almost none of them has put out five consistent albums, each one free of Bee Gees samples, along the way.

Gang Starr make raw, grassroots hip-hop, but strive for innovation within their self-imposed boundaries. Christopher "Premier" Martin's production is always musical, often moving at a strolling pace and incorporating finger-clicking brass and double bass from his jazz record collection. Keith "Guru" Elam's lyrics stand well back from the violent, misogynist, paranoid fantasies of his peers. Instead he tells moral, intelligent stories, even when chronicling the same world as the Uzi-and-Ho brigade. Gang Starr's name may be two Rs away from gangsta, and Full Clip may be firearm jargon, but "Tonz `O' Gunz" and "All 4 Tha Ca$h", for instance, possess a seriousness that should have most gangsta rappers shuffling their Adidas sneakers in shame. As Guru says on "Discipline", "Instead of preaching death in my songs, I breathe life."

This brings us to another matter: on a Gang Starr record, every word is easy to make out. This, too, is a pretty rare achievement ... and one which made the Gang show on Wednesday all the more disappointing. It reminded me why I don't review many hip-hop concerts. Quite apart from the Astoria's having been turned into a sauna for the occasion, both the rapping and the backing were a distorted, thudding racket. Surely there is a problem in a medium built on words if every one of them is incomprehensible.

Nor was there much in the way of visual compensation. Guru's showmanship begins and ends at his tossing a microphone from hand to hand as he and three of his mates pad around a bare stage. Bearing in mind the number of times Guru informs us that he and his Premier are "kings of the underground", I suppose the primitive show was his way of being true to the street. That's no excuse. The Astoria isn't a street, it's a concert venue.

Whitney Houston: Birmingham NEC, tonight; Wembley Arena, Wed, Thurs & Sat. Ticket hotline: 0870 444 4040

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style