Joss Stone, Scala, London

The Filly Sound? It's all giggles...
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The Independent Culture

Count the oxymorons in the following statement: Joss Stone is a white, 16-year-old soul singer from Devon. Now without wishing to dwell too long on these contradictions, let's just say that perhaps, over time, the Philly Sound will be replaced by the Filly Sound and we can all go back to bed with milk and biscuits. In the meantime, we are here to see this "teenage phenomenon" who has "taken America by storm", so let's get down to business.

As Stone wafts, giggling, onto the stage for her first headlining London show, the man next to me - who is old enough for it to be sinister - shouts, "Look, she's just a bubby." And, indeed, she does look young. Very young. Like the kind of girl who might get the underage pregnancy storyline in a TV soap. In fact, now I mention it, she looks alarmingly like a cross between EastEnder's Janine Butcher and Avril Lavigne. But we are here - well, most of us anyway - to listen to this Avril Janine sing. And sing she duly does, launching into Harlan Howard's "The Chokin' Kind".

She is without doubt a sensational singer. As soon as her pipes open, the giggling stops and the serious nature of the music takes over. Her backing band are tight and accomplished, she does not miss a note and for one transcendental moment we could be back at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem some time long before Stone was so much as a pebble.

The set is short, sharp and sometimes spot-on. The reinterpretation of the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl" (retitled "Fell in Love With a Boy"; we already have tATu, thank you very much) is a highlight. As is her stripped-down and shivery rendition of Jon B Sebastian's "I Had a Dream". There are new songs, too, one ("Jet Lag") co-written by Stone, which show a funkier, less vintage soul sound that hint at the direction she might take over her long and incontrovertibly promising future.

But it's hard to shake those reservations. That she has talent is not in question. Where there are doubts, it is over the direction this "new Aretha Franklin" will choose or have chosen for her. The incessant between-songs giggling and "Aw shucks. Who me? You really are too kind so I'm just going to stand here flicking my hair and giggling" persona grates and shows her at odds with the gravity of this material. The adult nature of the lyrics is also impossible to tally with this on-stage persona, and perhaps that reinterpretation of a White Stripes' song points the best way forward (a soul version of "Sk8er Boi" would really do it, I reckon).

It feels wrong to criticise too harshly, though. Stone is a well-above-average singer who would stand out a mile on Pop Idol or any other show of its ilk. But at this point, Stone's age is working against her. There are pitfalls to child stardom that must be avoided, and if the team behind her can circumnavigate those "new Aretha Franklin" labels and give her talent time to grow, we may indeed be witnessing a star in the making.

In the meantime, what we have here is a sort of Avril Janina Zavaroni. It's a bit like if your Gran stood up and demonstrated her freestyle rapping ability. You'd be like, "Er, cool Gran. Now chill out and let me get you a nice cup of tea." Call me old-fashioned, but some things just aren't right. And 16-year-old soul-singing sensations from Devon have a little living to do before they can be mentioned in the same breath as Aretha Franklin.

s.richman@independent.co.uk

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