How to cover the songs of a legend? The Barbican's tribute to Billie Holiday gets to the heart of the business by making a multi-voiced dialogue of an evening that combines performances from a worldwide collection of divas with photographic stills, audio excerpts and readings to create a picture not only of the source, but also of the power that source has had over subsequent generations.
Rocker Chrissie Hynde and new English diva Amy Winehouse join World Music stars Susheela Ramen and Angelique Kidjo and a range of platinum-standard R&B and Soul singers such as Fontella Bass, Carleen Anderson and Dee Dee Bridgewater. The diva meter is off the scale tonight, and the Barbican Hall stage suddenly looks small, but luckily, egos have been checked at the door along with the histrionics, and Billie & Me proves a thrilling combination of singers hitting their form behind a band arranged by drummer Terri Lynne Carrington. Originally a six-part radio tribute, Billie & Me's spare narrative provides a fresh context for songs given some seriously new interpretations, ranging from a West-African riot on "The Man I Love" to Lalah Hathaway's late-night take on "God Bless the Child".
Mixing strings and brass with crack American players, the band can summon up the smoky Forties small combo sound along with thick, swampy funk - most vividly on the first-half climax of Fontella Bass taking "Travellin'" down a slinky soul route that screams "hit single" to any record execs in the audience.
Neneh Cherry has the job of MC, and introduces the evening as "women artists playing tribute to their ancestor". First up is the youngest, 20-year-old Amy Winehouse, fresh from the acclaim for her debut album, fronting with Hathaway on a powerful, funky rendition of "Ain't Nobody's Business".
From the start, it's an evening that holds aloft the memory of a figure often seen as the ultimate victim. Though the drug use and domestic abuse fetishised by many are touched on in the biographical interludes between songs, the message of the evening is very much about empowerment over desolation. Like her songs, hardship, racism and abuse speak for themselves.
Chrissie Hynde turns in her elegant rock'n'roll slur on "I Cover the Waterfront", a perfect fit for the middle-distance smokiness of her voice. Dee Dee Bridgewater, who won an Olivier for her starring role in Lady Day, apologises before a scorching "I Hear Music". "If [Holiday's] voice comes out, excuse me, I can't help it, it's in me." When that voice does emerge it brings much of the audience to its feet.
Each of tonight's singers can dominate any stage they care to walk on to, and the energy level is kept up through a well-drilled set. Angelique Kidjo comes on with an extra bassist to fatten her sound, while Meshell Ndegeocello carries "Strange Fruit" with Mitch Foreman's skeletal piano. It's a hair-raising performance, and a long, intense instrumental interlude follows, during which her bassist gives a brief speech encompassing American slavery, American wealth, and those charred bodies hung from a bridge over the Euphrates. Strange fruit travels a long way, and tonight the song retains all its eerie power.
A crackling blues from Fontella Bass redirects the flow towards a delicate reading of "For All We" from veteran singer Yolande Bavan, who first met Billie in Paris when she was 20. She holds the only direct personal link to Holiday, and her appearance heralds the finale. By the reprise of "Travellin'", all 10 divas are on stage together, the audience is on its feet along with most of the band, and you get the feeling that none of them can quite believe they're there, or that such an ambitious tribute came off so well.Reuse content