Show Review (Bowery Ballroom, New York City)

    Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Winehouse? Here’s a hint: Sounds like “Ain’t me.”


    [more:]So, let’s talk about Amy Winehouse. And when I say “about,” I mean that wide, circular ’bout it, ’bout it. As in everything surrounding the subject, not the subject itself. Because judging by the by-the-books performance, by the audience at Amy Winehouse’s official New York City debut (an event attended by industry wigs and press is hardly in the same stratosphere as a people’s “concert”) at Bowery Ballroom on March 13, you’d think Winehouse had already ascended to celebrity status and deserved to be discussed in such a light.


    Granted, the British singer and songwriter put in her time. She released her first album, Frank, close to four years ago, but it received little attention because of its limited availability in the States as an import. Winehouse kept hope alive by chasing her Tanqueray with a snifter of press coverage, performing quite publicly(LINK: with that firewater breath, but Salaam Remi, the producer behind her album’s biggest hits, probably breathed a sigh of relief that no Nas fan would realize he recycled a beat.


    But thanks to Al Gore’s erstwhile information network, this changed seemingly overnight. A new record materialized and buzz started. Ghostface jumped on a remix and wrapped the hip-hop heads. The Dap-Kings backed her and turned on the indie dance machine. And Mark Ronson — fresh off Lily Allen, no less — reached out to seal the deal. Which brings us to tonight, and the possibility that Amy Winehouse may have won the Desperately Seeking Susan award.


    Before, during and after, the audience carried the performance. After admirable but disjointed performances by the sincere Jamie “Not Cullum” Woon and the cutie-pie Pipettes, the audience welcomed Ms. Winehouse, carried her with their rapt attention, and ushered her out of the building to the sound of a generous applause. Never mind what happened: Winehouse was treated as a celebrity, status unquestioned. What this meant was transcendence from mere musician to the broader world of public personality — a character to be judged according to a social network’s self-identification rubric. Talk surrounded everything under the sun, including her look (the natty beehive, the Sailor Jerry-style tats, the polka-dot dress); her taste (was the drink just lemonade or E&J-plus?); and her band (are those the Dap-Kings? Where is Sharon Jones? Is she mad? What’s up with the drummer’s face? Is he bored? Confused? Gassy?). Everything, it seemed, but the music.


    As captive as the audience may have been, Winehouse appeared distant and disconnected. Fans ejaculated premature adulations, but she only responded to one question: “What’re you drinking?” The band’s polished, professional demeanor immediately established an easy skanking groove on the opening salvo of “Just Friends” and “Cherry,” but she demonstrated little rapport with her group until halfway through the set, when she loosened up her voice for the “hits” — yet, even then, songs started, built and ended with a rigidly, rehearsed quality that revealed little. For all the big small-talk, Winehouse appeared to be a slight, young lady who only recently outgrew her F-me pumps.


    So, what’s wrong with Winehouse if she’s really just an artist in transition? Simple: She’s not being treated as an organic being but rather like a defined individual. Fans who only heard about her mere months ago spoke raptly about her. Yet the audience responded loudest when she knelt to take her first sip, as if that draw represented the first taste of liquor for an entire nation of forever twenty-one-year-olds. Still, for all her reservations and tepidness, Winehouse showed promise. To the aforementioned question about her cup’s contents, she responded wryly, “Ladies don’t drink.” After a brief pause, she smiled, “They gulp.” Perhaps the lady truly needs a few to loosen up — and when she’s loose she sounds quite nice. But she’ll first have to learn how to march in those pumps before owning that refrain, “No, no, no.”