November 16, 2006 4:31 pm

Amy Winehouse, Koko, London

Close your eyes and Amy Winehouse might be a torch singer or soul queen beamed in from the past. She looks very different in person, however: a 23-year-old North Londoner with a towering black beehive, cartoon-vamp make-up, spidery tattoos on each arm and, at this concert, a tiny dress so clingy it seemed to be suffering separation anxiety.

Unlike the blandly proficient Joss Stone, Winehouse brings a genuinely contemporary edge to old-fashioned soul. Her voice is forceful and statuesque, more fierce than tender, so that even pain- wracked ballads sound oddly defiant.

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As unravelled in her lyrics, her life reads like a chaotic riot of infidelity, failed relationships and intoxicants: “I tread a troubled track,” she tells us on her new album. Yet when she sings she doesn’t sound remotely troubled. Her vocals are ripe with self-possession, not self-pity.

It beats me how someone so colourful and talented ended up making such a dull debut album, Frank, whose meandering jazz-soul tracks were the low point of this homecoming show.

Fortunately its follow-up Back to Black is a huge improvement, ditching the jazziness in favour of vintage soul – think Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding – sung by Winehouse so vivaciously that she breathes life into what might otherwise have been pastiche.

Its best songs sparkled in her setlist like diamonds. “Back to Black”, set to a staccato beat and burnished by bells tolling in the background, sounded like the sort of brilliantly florid lament that Ennio Morricone used to write for spaghetti westerns.

“Me & Mr Jones” was a slinky, brass-led soul number, Winehouse displaying her vocal range without lapsing into show-offy excess. Finest of all was “Rehab”, as catchy an act of defiance as you’ll ever hear, in which she delivered lines such as “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no” while horns and handclaps urged her onwards.

More songs like that and Winehouse will be unstoppable.
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