First Night: Whitney Houston, LG Arena, Birmingham

Tired and erratic but still giving it everything
  • @Elisabray

The question of whether Whitney Houston would make this Birmingham show must have crossed the minds of most fans. With her first three UK shows postponed due to a respiratory infection, many wondered whether this signalled the toll taken on a star troubled by years of drug addiction and her tempestuous marriage to Bobby Brown. But when the soul pop diva appeared in a flamboyant white suit for her first show here in 11 years and started "For The Lovers", apprehension quickly evaporated.

Anyone who had read scathing reviews of Houston's post-rehab world tour's opening shows in Australia, watched the evidence on YouTube or caught sight of disappointed fans' reactions on news channels, might have regretted paying upwards of £75 a ticket to see her perform in the UK. In Brisbane, the 46 year-old star was booed for failing to reach the high notes which catapulted her to stardom. "Exhausted", "breathless" and "disoriented" were the damning verdicts of the critics and fans alike.

But five weeks have since passed, and during that time Houston has clearly learned to pace her set to her own advantage. Beginning with a handful of tracks from her new album, their register lower than her early hits, she eased herself towards the high notes later on. It was with the title track "I Look To You" that she won over the crowd, especially when she signed her autograph for a fan. "Thank you for your love, support and loyalty," she told a packed crowd. And as she seemed to implore her listeners with the lyrics "After all that we've been through. Who on earth can I turn to,", you could not help but admire a performer who, in the face of the negative press, stood up tonight to give her all. And Houston gave all she could.

If tonight was the first to attempt to recreate her early zest, she did not quite make it. But it's still an impressive voice – and you feel lucky to hear Houston live. After the first few numbers, without the backing band for support, her breathlessness could be heard, while later in the night she blamed her panting on the air conditioning.

If there were moments of tension, it was while the star was changing into a suitably dazzling slinky dress. After a song sung by her brother, Gary, "Queen of The Night" sung by three powerful-voiced backing singers, and a video montage to "One Moment in Time", fans began to cry "Where are you Whitney?" But it was the second half of her set for which she really saved the hits – and her voice.

Some pared-down early hits, including "Saving All My Love", performed seated, were tame versions of her former power. "All At Once" was one of her most controlled numbers, though it was when she abandoned the chair to sing "Step By Step", she regained the vigour of her former self. "Dance With Somebody" had the crowd dancing. By the time she reached "I Will Always Love You", her voice was tired, but she took relish in reaching the high note – even though she stopped mid-song and turned her back on the audience to compose herself.

Tonight was definitely a spectacle – and for the most part in a good way.