By Mark Guarino
If a break in the time-space continuum somehow immobilized Diana Ross with Paris Hilton, the synthesis would most likely turn into something like Amy Winehouse.The 23-year-old singer helps sell a lot of tabloids in her native Britain, where she is known as a torch-singing boozehound, unafraid to knock icons off their pedestals or show up at appointments soused. Thanks to “Back to Black” (Universal Republic), a terrific new album that is receiving a major push in the U.S., Winehouse is reaching to these shores where high profile party girls are now mainstream except, unlike the Brits, we don’t require them to have any talent.
Evidence that Winehouse is being heard translated to venue size. Winehouse was originally booked to play Thursday at Schubas but that show, with the album out only four months, was soon moved to the Vic, a venue almost five times its capacity. It sold out.
The music is immediately comfortable. Staged like an old-time Motown revue, Winehouse was supported by the Dap-Kings, a 10-member soul band dressed in neat black suits and flashing the occasional dance steps. They provided a striking contrast to the lead performer, a diminutive, tattooed woman in low-rise jeans and high-rise hair. That nesting black mop, too big for even Marge Simpson, became one of the evening’s many distractions — not just for the audience, but mostly for the person who wore it.
“Back to Black” is vintage R&B strengthened by Winehouse’s husky vocals, blunt lyrics and the elaborate production of Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson. They punch the arrangements, from doo-wop to big band soul, with enough playfulness to make Winehouse sound like a boxer, fighting her way out of bad situations and bad men with a weary, love-torn voice that sounds determined to be free.
They were emotions she could not express live. An undisciplined singer and performer, Winehouse fidgeted throughout her stunted, hour-long set, looking uninterested or maybe overwhelmed. She seemed to dissociate herself from the songs, refusing to push the levels she reached on the album. As two very charismatic Dap-Kings sang, danced and stole the show to her left, Winehouse did not follow suit by throwing herself into the songs. Instead, she was their placating custodian.
The songs, backed by horns and glittery soul guitars, begged for more. The simple piano-guitar riffs framed songs wide enough for her to fill but she dawdled. On “He Can Only Hold Her,” Winehouse and her singers paid tribute to Lauryn Hill, another neo-soul singer known for erratic live performances, by quoting her song “Doo-Wop (That Thing).”
To fill time (only 13 songs made the setlist), Winehouse threw lollipops to the audience between songs. Before each one, she announced its color. Early into the show, she allowed herself a self-critique: “I (expletive) up a lot … I’m unprofessional. It’s hard to justify.”