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

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence