There is something eerie in a Joss Stone performance, something unsettling in this white-blonde, apple-cheeked teenager belting out rhythm and blues with the deep, rust-and-honey voice of a soul veteran.
There is something eerie in a Joss Stone performance, something unsettling in this white-blonde, apple-cheeked teenager belting out rhythm and blues with the deep, rust-and-honey voice of a soul veteran. It's the 17-year-old from Devon who pads barefoot on to the Academy's stage, but her strutting, raunchy voice is that of a Detroit diva, as if she were channelling another presence, like a scene from The Exorcist.
But her head never swivels, and not one profanity passes her lips. This is a family show, and an army of dazzled adolescents watched someone not much older achieve a very Fame Academy dream of instant stardom. Yet Stone is no digitalised music-industry invention, and she sings with hair-parting power. She may be gauche and gangly at times, but she has an uncanny affinity with the sounds of Detroit, Memphis and Philadelphia. What happened when Stone was in the womb; did her parents play a loop of Motown and Stax? Did they blast her nursery with Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Dinah Washington?
Anyway, here she is, at 17, opening her UK tour, with a No 1 album, Mind Body and Soul, and with gold US sales already notched up. There are the songwriting collaborations with Lamont Dozier, and Nile Rodgers on guitar on the first single off the album, the vengeful "You Had Me", the sassiest and best song of the night. These are legendary R&B craftsmen.
When Stone sings "Spoiled", a Dozier co-composition, you wonder at how someone this young, British and white can sound so deeply, soulfully black. Rock music, after all, has been founded on white artists emulating African-American voices, from Elvis to Eminem. In female vocalist terms, the closest comparison is Janis Joplin's white-soul scream - but she was older, wilder and American. And when she sings "Right to Be Wrong", Stone has the authentic passion of a performer many times her age. This novelty value may be a problem; with a mediocre backing band playing standards and selections from the album, it is a moot point whether this would all be so special if it wasn't such an incongruous Devon lass singing the stuff.
Strange that someone so young should concentrate on, and magnify, so much that is old. The influence of veteran musicians is in everything she does, and the lingering impression is of a massive retro session. Stone's songbook is mostly made up of old-school soul balladeering and gyrating R&B, and it seems she is too gutsy a vocalist for material that could descend into Vonda Shepherd bar-room retreads.
Coming soon, worryingly, is Stone's duet with Mick Jagger for a cover of Mud's "It'll Be Lonely This Christmas". But time is very much on her side; if she can take that exemplary voice and apply it to edgier, more adventurous material, Stone might become a considerable force in pop and soul.
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