From the pompous overture of the opening number, 'The Greatest Love of All', to the closing bar of 'I'm Every Woman', when she curtsied and skipped off the stage with husband Bobby Brown, the evening's sport lay in wondering what next she would do with the flawless thing. For there isn't a lot else to do at a Whitney Houston concert. You can look at her cute posterior - which she invited us to do, during one homily on post-natal water retention and the tabloids. You can strain through your binoculars to see if her button nose wrinkles on the crucial note as it did in the video for 'I Will Always Love You'. And you can go in search of the loo while she changes her frock and her brother Gary sings a sweet soul version of Eric Clapton's 'Tears in Heaven'. The band remain in the background, and the chorus are not encouraged to show off. The focus is on the famous larynx.
And the voice was in good shape. Not one to ease her throat into the action gently, she followed the ambitious opening number with 'Love Will Save the Day,' switching from towering sustain to percussive phrases that made her the first person to sing her own samples convincingly: 'Do you believe in love?', she asked rhetorically, over and over. A theme she was to return to in just about every song. She also talked a lot.
Because she doesn't write her own songs, it's tempting to fill in the personality void by dwelling on her technique. In the warm and weepy 'Saving All My Love for You', there was a marvellous high frequency rasp on the edge of each note. That and the near-terminally deferred ending were the reassurance you needed that the coffee-coloured Cindy doll was human after all. Early in the show, we seemed for a moment to be on the edge of some Prince-type prank, as she cooed to the lone photographer in the pit, 'Hi] Wanna picture?' She looked into the wings. 'She's not here yet. She's getting her stage clothes on.' Perhaps, to borrow a cheap trick from The Crying Game, the figure in the stretch-velvet paisley gown wiggling like a mermaid was a stand-in?
It only became clear what Houston was up to a few songs later when Mr Brown carried their daughter on to the stage to a mixture of roars and aahs. Bobbi Kristina Brown was formally introduced, and daddy left them alone for some quality time. The little girl (she was wearing foam yellow earplugs, Health and Safety officials please note) could not be persuaded to give up sucking the microphone and sing something, so her mother launched into a little riff of her own: 'Mommy loves you, ooh ooh, mommy loves you, more than you know . . .'
It was, strange to tell, curiously affecting, this public display of maternal affection. Even if you weren't a committed Whitney Weight Watcher sort, you couldn't deny her this little moment of indulgence. There weren't many other moments of indulgence, stranger to tell. Houston's magic is in the way she leaves room to improvise vocal lines, in the gospel tradition, while at the same time singing the bits you recognise with the purity of the digital recording on your CD shelf at home. 'I Have Nothing' was the perfect example. She stood in silence with her back to the audience, disregarding the nervous well-wishers in the crowd. She walked up to the mike, stood erect, composed her arms, paused again, and explained: 'I'm coming. I just need a little more time for this one.' Then she launched into the line 'Share my life . . .', clear as a bell and note perfect, the band coming in a split second after with the rhythm.
Although she invited the crowd to dance, and they did, for her greatest song 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody', there was not a lot of bopping to be done in the two-hour spell. That despite the fact that she collapsed several of her many ballads into a love medley, and later 'took us to church' with the overt gospel material. The fact is, it's not groove music. The next time Bobby came back on (he loves her and he needs the publicity) he did a little twist, as if to remind her that a little dancing might be appreciated, but his wife just smiled and kissed him instead. She's a serious woman after all. She'll totter about in the name of elegance, but all her other movements are strictly connected to the voice - a slight bend at the waist to get under a high note, a pump of the right leg or a swing of the arm for extreme emphasis.
'I Will Always Love You' was saved for the penultimate number, and lived up to expectations. Her version of the Dolly Parton song is already an assault course of key changes, shifts in volume and unpredictable pockets of vibrato. But live, she added a fascinating touch. Suddenly, drenched in sweat for the first time, she tore into the climax with such passion that she repeated the chorus for her own sake, away from the mike, looking sideways and upwards, as if to who? Her child? Her man? God? There were no video cameras around.
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