Pop: Princess Whitney turns urban queen

WHITNEY HOUSTON WEMBLEY ARENA LONDON
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The Independent Culture
IT HAS struck me of late, and not just because she's been called the princess of pop-soul, that there are elements of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Whitney Houston. Beautiful and bland, in the early days, she was daffily finger-popping, just wanting to `Dance With Somebody', yet sentimental (she was `Saving All her Love' for someone, a married man, as it turned out).

Like Diana, both time and an errant husband have mellowed her and the new album, My Love Is Your Love, is a soundtrack of, for the most part, stoic resignation.

Still, Whitney has come through. She's channelled her energies into various charities and has such luminaries as The Fugees' Lauren Hill and Wyclef Jean involved in her music.

Their effect has rubbed off; recent interviews show Whitney reinvented as an urban queen ("The groove is bangin'," she told one boggled admirer. "But I've been down and funky for a long time"). This urban touch was the flavour of Wednesday's show, where even the merchandise was for hanging out on street corners. "Fleece is nice," says a connoisseur, eyeing up a pounds 40 top, "if it didn't have "Whitney' on it." Inside the packed arena, the audience can barely contain itself. Then the lights dim, the stage fills with troops - dancers, singers and a vast band - and `My Love Is Your Love' kicks in with such volume you'd think the drums were a Panzer division on the move.

Finally, atop a complex staircase, there's Whitney. She's resilient all right: dressed as Danny La Rue, she sports principal boy trousers, silver boots and a coat apparently made of 1,000 shaggy green caterpillars that trails lengthily in her wake. She sings, and so do the chorus, but all you can hear, really, is that martial timpani and a reggae toaster. Still, it's clubby.

"Heartbreak Hotel", also from the new album, works much better. Whitney has said she's a method performer, doesn't sing anything she does not feel; now she shrugs a glistening shoulder free and barrels that molten voice into a vortex of passionate longing and cheated disgust, the dancers bend psychotically out of shape to express her pain. It's exciting and moving, though if Bobby Brown were here, he'd probably pick his teeth and gaze at the ceiling.

Wrung out, Whitney takes a break, one of many where she towels down and reapplies her make-up. She hardly needs it though. She's only in her thirties and the years have been kind. The rest of the evening reminds you exactly who she is, from a funky "I'm Every Woman" to those classic Eighties singles "I Wanna Dance" and "How Will I Know?", during which she stalks the stage honed and dripping like Red Rum after a Grand National. There's a slightly embarrassing interlude where her brother Gary sings an Eric Clapton number, and the gospel section is trying. On the whole, though, if she could sort out that distorto-sound, I'd say she's hitting her mid-period with vigour.

Glyn Brown

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