Monday, March 19, at the Roxy
Performing to a sold-out Roxy, Amy Winehouse gave a hilarious intro to the confessional song “You Know I’m No Good”: After she had betrayed a lover, he asked if she even loved him. “I told him, ‘I do love you,’ ” she recounted — adding with playful exasperation, “ ‘But, like, I get bored. I told you I’m no good!’ ” The crowd loved it — and sang every song by heart, all night long.
Winehouse’s top-to-bottom brilliant sophomore album, Back to Black (Republic/Universal), is bursting with great, quotable lines, many as wry as they are poignant. One of the best is tucked in the driving, Motown-based “Tears Dry on Their Own,” where she admits: “Even if I stop wanting you/and perspective pushes through/I’ll be some next man’s other woman soon…”
The word other is key here. That’s the woman who wears the scarlet letter — fallen, disgraced. Winehouse casually conveys volumes through a single word or phrasing choice throughout Black, a breakup album whose defining characteristic is working-class feminine wit. And I mean both types of wit — intelligence and humor, which Winehouse uses intuitively to express how obsession dovetails with addiction. References to booze and boozing, drugging and fucking-as-self-destruction crowd the text of this confessional album. The musical filter through which Winehouse pours it all is the girl-group sound of the early ’60s — the Shangri-Las, the Shirelles, the Ronettes and the Chiffons.
Live, Winehouse was noticeably nervous but utterly charming, singing for an audience who knew all the words to all the songs. She was in spectacular voice throughout, backed by a crack band (man, that horn section . . .) and two chicly attired male backup singers who energetically pulled off synchronized choreography. Winehouse’s own herky-jerky, off-the-beat dancing and ragged emulation of girl-group style somehow underscored an aura of sincerity (a matted beehive with an unkempt tail; an ill-fitting dress that kept sliding down her scary-thin frame; weathered leopard-print shoes rummaged from the back of some tranny’s closet). Her awkward performance of femininity befits a woman who can’t quite figure how to stop fucking up her relationships and her life.
Winehouse may be retro, but her work is, mercifully, irony-free. This is no academic study of girl-group traditions; instead, it’s a gut-level recognition of the strength and beauty of those impeccably crafted records — and the 8-by-10-ready public personas attached to them. For Back to Black, Winehouse gave her producers, Mark Ronson and Salaamremi.com, explicit instructions about the sound and vibe she wanted to accompany her self-penned lyrics. Together, they’ve captured not only the aesthetics of an era (the album is a gorgeous latticework of perfect, anachronistic detail) but also the naked romanticism, and theatrical but sincere vulnerability, of pop gone by. But Winehouse also references kindred artists outside the girl-group heyday: Esther Phillips (whose addiction-filled life and the havoc it wreaked on her career make her the most resonant influence), Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and, of course, Lauryn Hill.
At the Roxy, Winehouse sang everything from Back to Black, including “Addicted” (inexplicably left off the U.S. release, replaced with a god-awful remix of “You Know I’m No Good” featuring a rap by Ghostface Killah). Highlights of the set were “Tears Run Dry” and… it’s hard to say. The crowd’s energy was so intense, and their already-won love so exuberantly given, the night had the feel of a raucous coronation.
What was especially interesting about the performance was the way Winehouse handled her nerves — besides frequent sips taken from a cup at the edge of the stage. She stared down at the stage a lot, then looked up with a sneer or curled lip that evoked gum-popping, eyeball-rolling femmes from Ronettes to B-girls, gangsters’ molls to biker chicks. But there were also fleeting moments when she clearly checked out of her own performance: Her eyes would simply go blank, and she’d retreat behind them. Still, that voice — the sound of mysteriously missing teeth, Spanish Harlem stoops in summer and declarations of undying love — never wavered, and was never less than amazing.