Macy Gray, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Macy Gray's records rarely seem to match up to her image: the flaky, funky, erratic, but traditional soul sister. This was the kind of entertainer it transpired that many in Britain had been waiting for when she arrived with her one knockout hit, "I Try", in 1999 - a singer with a soul-signifying grain to her voice, grooves with links to hip-hop modernity, but with her heart reassuringly in black America's now safe, 1960s past.

Television appearances where she seemed unclear which planet she was on reinforced the idea of an interesting free spirit, and recent records - including the newThe Trouble With Being Myself - have open-mindedly expanded her remit to funk and psychedelia. But somehow, on her albums something is still missing - she sounds like a theoretical concept for a neo-soul star, more than a viscerally gripping great. Live, however, when she can reach you direct, is a different story.

Walking on with her hair in a gigantic Afro and wearing black velvet jacket and shades, the first thing you notice is how gracelessly Gray moves. Absent-mindedly shuffling on the spot then clutching her head, she's almost Joe Cocker-like in her unconcerned, ungainly clumping. Her band include two excellent female singer-musicians dressed like they've just walked in from the street, adding to an impression of improvised looseness. But while there is an organic feel to what follows, in other ways Gray's act is razor-sharp.

She is talking to the audience almost from the start, asking us to shout out our names, then shaking hands at the front, making us feel closer to the stage. When she asks all the "girls" in the house to holler, followed by the "ladies", "hootchie mamas", "bitches", "skeezers" and "queens of the universe", the Empire's women clearly feel they're all six. "Sexual Revolution" is then introduced by a promise from Gray that "we'll take off all our clothes if you do", prompting her bassist to drop his trousers, some women to swing their shirts in the air, and Gray to fiddle with her flies.

The bassist's trousers are still round his ankles as they segue into Funkadelic's "One Nation Under a Groove". It's an appropriate choice, as Gray's "Come Together" merges into The Beatles' song, and fragments of ska, church organ, soul brass, Blondie and The Clash are brought into the stew, and Gray's comments to us become increasingly inclusive and intimate. But this is not the flaky Gray of mostly tiresome legend. She is concentrating on communicating to us tonight, clearly giving and taking pleasure in being on stage in a way so beyond notions of career, it makes her records irrelevant.

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