Dionne Warwick, Shaw Theatre, London<br/>Johnny Boy, Purple Turtle, London

Walk on by? When she's on stage?
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The Independent Culture

Expressing a fondness for gazelle-framed, wonky-jawed, evening-gowned divas Dionne Warwick will never score you many points with soul purists. In many quarters, she'll forever be dismissed as a female Nat King Cole. And it's true that the skinny New Jersey girl never employed the lung-busting histrionics of, say, an Aretha Franklin (to whose version of "I Say A Little Prayer" Dionne's is, consequently, admittedly inferior). But she had her moments. Listen to her debut single - and concert curtain-raiser - "Don't Make Me Over", and hear the speakers almost tremble with distortion as she belts out "Accept me for what I am! Accept me for the things that I do!", while holding the microphone at arm's length.

And yet, there's something special about her, an elegant restraint, hinting at the hurt deep inside. Her recordings with Burt Bacharach and Hal David (for whom she was a muse and mouthpiece throughout the Sixties) retain a haunting, Gothic ambience to match anything else released in that decade.

Tonight, at least at first, the evening gowns are nowhere to be seen. Nor are the tuxedos in which you'd expect her backing band to be kitted out. Instead, Dionne Warwick steps out in a powder-blue pullover and pinstriped slacks, like your gran might wear to church. The band, too, are in civvies - her bassist is wearing a hoodie.

The casual dress is symbolic. This one-woman "My Music and Me" residency isn't the Vegas cabaret version. It's an informal, up-close-and-personal autobiography and greatest-hits show. As a raconteur she's surprisingly funny, even if the manner in which she continually refers to herself in third person is unsettling, until you realise that she views "Dionne" (her middle and adopted stage name) as the public persona, and that "Marie" (her real name) is the narrator.

She's brilliantly bitchy and borderline bitter about the way in which her Sixties US hits were routinely re-recorded by white girls for UK consumption. Before "Anyone Who Had A Heart", she reminds us that it was "stolen" by "ssss-Cilla Black" (she stops to raise a meaningful eyebrow), "but this is the original". Before "Always Something There To Remind Me", she mentions "a little girl called Sandie Shaw", the name virtually uttered with a spit.

A little harsh on Shaw, whose version was enjoyably spunky, but you can understand Warwick's resentment. Tellingly, however, she doesn't launch any such attack on Dusty Springfield prior to "The Look Of Love", leading one to suspect that Dusty was the only British rival for whom Dionne had any time (a suspicion she confirms when I ask her about it in the post-gig Q&A: "She was the only one who had the voice for my songs. You got that right.")

These talky interludes are entertaining. She'll tell you the convoluted tale of how she came to be the 44th artist to record the theme from Alfie, "...but the only one to have a hit", and you'll chuckle at her coy boastfulness. Suddenly, though, she'll launch into an immortal song like "Walk On By" or "Reach Out For Me", and time stands still. There's something magical about watching a legend in the flesh, singing a canonical classic which nothing - not the embarrassingly arhythmic clapping of the audience, not the cheapness of the horn and string parts being played on a synthesizer - can diminish.

For part 2, she is in eveningwear, and the band are in tuxes. She takes us through her barren 1970s, punctuated only by "Then Came You", a Thom Bell-written disco hit with The (Detroit) Spinners, and reveals that she considered going back to a teaching career. Her Eighties revival with the Bee Gees-penned "Heartbreaker" is next, and she candidly confesses to the odd mistake: hosting TV ads for the Psychic Friends Network, for example. Rather more impressively, she was an early campaigner for Aids awareness, and rattled the Reagan White House sufficiently that they tried to mollify her with the offer of some sort of "ambassador" sinecure. Admirably, she told Ronnie exactly where he could shove it.

"This should be a Christmas No 1", Johnny Boy's guitarist-singer-sampler Davo says in his sardonic Scouse tones, before "Theme From Johnny Boy". His sidekick, Lolly Hayes, strikes a more realistic note. "Maybe in January..."

Back in May 2005, the Liverpudlian male-female duo released what is widely and correctly considered to be one of the singles of the decade so far. Starting with a Ronettes drumbeat, fizzing with fireworks and resounding with church bells, "You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve" was angry yet romantic, with lines about "Adidas' sleek mystique reversed" emerging from a Spectoresque wall of sound courtesy of guest producer James Dean Bradfield. The world waited for what would surely be a stunning debut album. And waited. It never came. Vertigo, the major label on which "Generation" was released, had quietly dropped the band and left them in the lurch.

The duo took matters into their own hands. The album was licensed to less cloth-eared labels in far-flung territories and then import copies trickled back to the UK. Finally, the band have pressed up their own batch for UK release, available via their MySpace (johnnyboyuk).

In the meantime, they've honed themselves into a formidable live act. Behatted respectively in a sequinned beret and black fedora, Lolly and Davo look like a latterday Bonnie and Clyde. No coincidence: Bonnie Parker is referenced in their film show. And what a film show it is: created with the help of Clash film-maker Don Letts, it cuts up classic movie footage - Keitel and De Niro pacing Scorsese's Mean Streets (source of the band's name), McQueen caged and moody in Papillon - with evocative newsreels of police beating up miners.

You'll have gathered that Johnny Boy exhibit such unfashionably pre-postmodern attributes as "belief" and "integrity" (buzzwords which recall The Mighty Wah!, to whom they bear a considerable resemblance). You'd be wrong, though to surmise that they're devoid of attributes such as "fun" and "joy": their closing medley of the Ramones' "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" with Shirley Ellis's "Clapping Song" nails that one.

"Generation", however, is simply overpowering. "That really should be the Christmas No 1," Davo declares. He's not wrong.

s.price@independent.co.uk

'Dionne Warwick: My Music and Me' (0870 033 2600) to 15 Dec

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