Amy Winehouse, Jazz Cafe, London<br></br>The Twilight Singers, Islington Academy, London

Harsh words, sweet voice... Yep, she's got it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'Your neighbours were screaming 'I don't have a key for downstairs'/ So I punched all the buzzers, hoping you wouldn't be there..." These are the startling first words of "Take The Box", the current single from Amy Winehouse, the alarmingly talented young jazz singer whose two Brit nominations (Best Female, and a rather incongruous Best Urban) have been raising "who the hell?" eyebrows in many quarters. It's a painfully detailed account of a messy break-up, apparently written in real time during the event itself, in which she purges herself of all the possessions her lover gave to her: "that Moschino bra you bought me last Christmas" (she mispronounces Moschino, the way British people always do), "Frank's in there and I don't care..." They aren't her first words tonight, though. Those are "Hello... Shit, I'm in the Jazz Cafe!" This, touchingly, is a big deal for her: she's bought a brand new little black dress for the occasion (we know this, because she hasn't worked out how to stop the shoulderstraps from falling down). For the time being, at least, Winehouse is as surprised to be where she is as we are to see her there.

A glance at the album charts might provide circumstantial evidence for talk of a jazz revival, albeit of a distinctly Radio 2-driven kind. Mention Katie Melua if you like, mention Jamie Cullum if you must, but these artists have about as much to do with Amy Winehouse as does that Blue Note-inspired car ad with Thierry Henry in it.

There's a Form vs Content issue at play here, and the content is all-important. Jazz Funk, let's make no mistake, is one of the most horrible genres known to man, and Acid Jazz, its spiritual successor, is worse (the black equivalent of Noelrock). If this was a gig by Carleen Anderson (say), or Heather Small, there would be no aesthetic justification for being here, just the usual "carefully-crafted" musical cliches and dead-mouthed lyrical platitudes.

On the face of it, Amy Winehouse belongs in the same category (even though she's patently a cut above the average nu-soul caterwauler). Her six-piece band (including sax, trombone, trumpet and flute) wouldn't sound out of place in the Jazz Cafe any other night of the week.

What really sets Winehouse apart is the courageous, refreshing honesty of her words, and it is this which elevates her to the Jill Scott/Joni Mitchell class. Her album Frank, recorded when she was just 19 (she's still only 20), is well-named indeed. Her influences may be vintage and American (she grew up on her dad's Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington), but when she talks, she's as 21st-century north London as you please. Amy Winehouse is yet another product of the Sylvia Young school, but she was expelled: partly for having a pierced nose, and partly for "not applying herself". This I can believe. She exudes an effortlessness which suggests hard work was never her style. For a stage school kid, she's also remarkably unaffected and natural. A dark beauty with a slightly equine face, she alternates between grinning like a child and tossing her hair like a flamenco dancer.

Her voice is extraordinary, a languidly sexual instrument, so potent that she only needs to be in the general vicinity of the mic (even a casual, shut-lipped "mmm" goes right through you). Sadly, it's also stylised in the extreme, full of exaggerated midnight-at-the-oasis mannerisms. Of course, this brings whooping applause, this being the sort of crowd where a performer gets applauded for scat for scat's sake. But all too often, she elides the words so much that you can hardly make them out. Which is a tragedy.

Perhaps she's simply becoming self-conscious. The song "Stronger Than Me", in which she chides a sensitive man who fails to fulfil his manly role and take the lead, has been criticised for a homophobic subtext due to lines like, "Feel like a lady/ And you my ladyboy" and the blunt, "are you gay?" "Stronger Than Me" also betrays a perverse streak of anti-feminism, which is also detectable in encore "Fuck Me Pumps", wherein she verbally slaughters a tartily-attired woman who is "pushing 30" (which, from Amy's viewpoint, is quite a distance away). Still trying to look attractive at that age? Heaven forbid!

Age does not bother (nor wither) Greg Dulli, the devilishly suave Greek-American who put the sin into Cincinnati, and the natty. The Afghan Whigs were the most underrated surfers of the grunge wave, largely because they had little to do with grunge at all. When they quietly disbanded at the end of the Nineties, one feared we'd heard the last of Dulli, but he soon resurfaced with a new project, The Twilight Singers, who - as the name suggests - are marginally more sepulchral and vespertine in tone than his previous incarnation.

Marginally. Onstage, The Twilight Singers are as paint-blisteringly powerful as the Whigs in their prime, and Dulli has lost none of his relish for the stage. Afghan Whigs shows were always enlivened by surprising cover versions (TLC's "Creep", Prince's "When Doves Cry"), and tonight is no exception.

In addition to highlights from the Twilights' two (excellent) albums, including a track dedicated to Dr David Kelly ("Martin Eden"), and a scattering of Whigs classics, this show is dominated by excerpts from Greg Dulli's internal jukebox.

So we get Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" running into The Isley Brothers' "That Lady", Abba's "Dancing Queen" segued into Gershwin's "Summertime", silly romps through Judas Priest's "Living After Midnight" and the Beverly Hills 90210 theme (no kidding), a sublime rendition of Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting", a snatch of Ice Cube's "Wicked", and a verse from The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" (which has never sounded so sinister).

No two Dulli shows are ever the same. It helps that most Whigs/Twilight songs follow an identical chord pattern, allowing Greg to inter-reference chunks of his songs in a mix-and-match manner, to reprise and echo themes like a great cinematic composer. Dulli's a supernaturally cool performer, never seen without a smoke hanging from his lip (he has a specially-constructed cigarette holder on his mic stand), and there's much dramatic use of tobacco choreography. Even the drummer's in on the act, hitting a cymbal with a lit Marlboro, then flicking the ember in an arc towards the wings stage-right.

"I was thinking..." Dulli drawls between puffs, "what if Dean Martin was the lead singer of the Zombies?" (He's writing his own reviews now!) What follows is an incredible version of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" in a Dino style, which could plausibly be a Dulli original: "Who's your daddy? Is he rich like me?" The encores are better still. Greg sits solo at the electric piano and breaks into "Roses" by Outkast ("I know you like to think that your shit don't stink..."), then follows it with a wondrously improbable Stevie Nicks trilogy ("Sara", "Gypsy", "Rhiannon") which, at the line "she is like a cat in the dark, and then she is... The Darkness", mutates into a "Get Your Hands Off My Woman"/ "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" medley.

One of the best shows I've ever seen. Should I ever find myself stricken down with a terminal ailment, one of my dying wishes is to see off a bottle of whiskey in Greg Dulli's company, with a pile of his favourite records. Failing that, another Twilight Singers show will do just fine.

s.price@independent.co.uk

The Twilight Singers: Hop and Grape, Manchester (0161 275 2930), Monday; Stanley Theatre, Academy 2, Liverpool (0151 709 9108), Tuesday; Rescue Rooms, Nottingham (0115 958 8484), Wednesday

Comments