All Hail the Ronette From Hell

Dazzling soul savior triumphs despite being painted with the crazy brush

With the hype justified by her soon-to-finally-hit- the-U.S. (and already No. 1 in the U.K.) sophomore CD Back to Black—and Ghostface's imprint on the slurred, sinewy "You Know I'm No Good"—23-year-old soul stylist Amy Winehouse made her American debut with two sold-out shows attended by the kind of hipsters who don't pay to attend shows. You'd have to figure that being the latest savior of r&b is a heavy burden, especially if said savior is 85 pounds, maybe, and that's including three-inch heels. Those expectations, combined with her youth, might explain why Winehouse wasn't as confident as her glorious songs or magnificent voice would have you believe, but she certainly looked like she walked the walk. Backed by a taut 10-piece band, she hit the tiny stage like a tatted-up Ronette from hell, complete with thick black eyeliner, fabulously ratted bouffant weave, and a skintight, strapless cocktail dress. The 45-minute early set kicked off with Back to Black's "Addicted," an infectiously breezy cautionary tale about bogarting that joint, setting up Winehouse's primary lyrical themes: getting fucked up (e.g., the finger-popping "Rehab," which just says no to saying no) and getting fucked over.

Basking beneath her waterfall hairpiece
Cary Conover
Basking beneath her waterfall hairpiece

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Amy Winehouse
Joe's Pub
January 16

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Along with a laundry list of alleged "issues," these sorts of lyrical themes get Winehouse painted with the crazy brush, and indeed, as the knockout set went on she appeared increasingly tentative and distracted. Whether chatting to her backup singer while he was still backup singing, continuously adjusting her waterfall hairpiece, nervously tugging up her frock (effectively killing the bad-girl factor), or just talking to herself, at times Winehouse came off like a Motown-informed cross between Fiona Apple and Pete Doherty. (OK, less of the latter.) Ironically, the more twitchy she behaved, the more assured she sang. Whether taking Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)" for a quick spin or climbing the Back to Black title track's wall-of-sound dramatics, there was no denying Amy's power, even if she might be more cut out to be a singer than a star.

 
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