Whitney Houston – Nottingham Trent FM Arena, Thursday April 14.
An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Nottingham Evening Post.
In this age of instant opinion, where anyone’s hastily typed thoughts can be accessed by the whole world within seconds, it’s difficult to know who to trust. This holds especially true when the subject under discussion is the comeback tour by a major star, re-entering the public arena after many years of well-documented personal anguish.
So do we trust Whitney Houston’s diehard fans, who are all too ready to excuse every fault? (“If you want the Whitney of twenty years ago, buy a CD” fumed one supporter, angrily reacting to mixed reviews of Whitney’s first British show in eleven years, just two nights ago.) Or do we listen to widely read gossip websites such as Holy Moly, who pronounced her Birmingham show “a disaster”? (“It was a resounding, unadulterated success in the same way that the Titanic’s maiden voyage was a success”, they sneered.)
If you had witnessed last night’s astonishing performance at the Trent FM Arena, then you might have found it hard to have much sympathy with the cynics. For contrary to many people’s expectations, Whitney Houston delivered a powerful, passionate performance to a crowd that was overwhelmingly on her side.
For the first forty minutes of the show, which were dominated by tracks from her recent album I Look To You, the 46 year old star was on almost flawless form – unless you count a fluffed introduction to one of the older songs. (“Let me take you back to nineteen… I don’t know!” she giggled.) That aside, she hit every note, navigating every rhythmic twist and turn with assured dexterity, and maintaining a commanding stage presence. A slightly ragged My Love Is Your Love was saved by an emotionally charged final section, which saw Whitney obsessively repeating the phrase “Are you with me?” with ever-increasing intensity.
“I have no tricks – I hope you can handle that”, she told us, pointing to the simple stage set-up behind her. “I have no costumes, I have no drag”, she announced – although this didn’t stop her from disappearing for a costume change that lasted nearly twelve minutes, while the backing singers (including Whitney’s brother Gary) performed in her absence. “You take your time, Whitney!” joked the fans at the front, as she announced her departure.
The second half of the show began with a lengthy acoustic section. Grouped together at the front of the stage, the musicians clustered around the seated singer, who began with an emotional tribute to Michael Jackson. (“He was my friend. I called him Michael. And he called me Whitney!”)
From this point onwards, the eccentricities began to emerge. Saving All My Love For You was interrupted for a conversation with a woman in the front row, who expressed her admiration for Whitney’s shoes. The shoes were examined at some length, as Whitney bent over and began to stroke her ankles. The song resumed, only to stall again at the sight of two punters returning to their seats. (“I see you got beer!” made for an interesting lyrical addition.)
Interruptions over, the singer became ever more immersed in her performance. Scarcely registering our presence, she picked at a loose thread on her sequinned frock, while taking ever bolder risks with her interpretations – improvising, freestyling, playing with melodies and rhythms, and turning the cavernous arena into an intimate cabaret club.
As the show approached its climax, the old Eighties dance hits were finally given an airing. I Wanna Dance With Somebody and How Will I Know got the crowd dancing, singing and clapping along – but the star herself seemed almost disinterested in this lighter, poppier material, leaving the choruses of both songs to her backing singers. Or was this simply a case of exhaustion beginning to take its toll?
If so, then perhaps this would explain the bizarre rendition of I Will Always Love You that closed the main set. As with the earlier acoustic section, Whitney attempted to play daring games with her best known vocal performance – but by this time, the cracks were starting to show. The song needed discipline and control, rather than silly false endings and awkwardly botched notes.
Nevertheless, all the high notes were hit – even if we had to wait an eternity for some of them, while Whitney turned her back, fiddled with her hair and costume, and generally pantomimed the role of the nervous, trembling diva, girding herself for one last onslaught. Meanwhile, none of this stopped the crowd from roaring their encouragement throughout the song, willing their idol to last the course and finish the job.
Perhaps the outraged fan had got it right after all. If all you want is the Whitney of twenty years ago – the remote, somewhat bland superstar, obediently playing her role – then perhaps you should stick with those old CDs. But if you would rather have the Whitney of 2010 – flawed at times, but freed from her demons and calling her own tune, in her own unique way – then last night’s show would have sent you home beaming with delight, and thoroughly entertained.
For the Lovers
Nothin’ But Love
I Look to You
My Love Is Your Love
Like I Never Left
It’s Not Right But It’s Okay
For the Love of You (performed by Gary Houston)
Queen of the Night (performed by backing vocalists)
A Song For You
Saving All My Love For You
Greatest Love of All
All At Once
I Learned from the Best
Step By Step
I Love the Lord
I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)
How Will I Know
I Will Always Love You
Million Dollar Bill