The last time I saw Amy Winehouse was in March; it was her second time gracing the Big Apple and she arrived with the Pipettes in tow for a night of ’50s and ’60s throwback. The Pipettes invoked the spirits of the girl groups of yesterday, simultaneously bopping and swishing their polka-dot dresses as a crowd of uninspired Brits slouched and sought temporary comfort in their brews. The sold-out crowd was clearly there for Winehouse, prepared to see her wail about her demons while indulging them on stage. At that point, her much-publicized bout with alcoholism and suspected struggle with an eating disorder led the crowd to expect an onstage meltdown. But, there was no meltdown: Winehouse whirled through the tracks on her fantastic sophomore effort, Back To Black, and hinted at liquor-lust only when she bent down in her own polka-dot dress to take sips of Jack Daniels and lemonade between songs (and sometimes between verses). This time, I was surrounded by self-professed hip-hop lovers, gay couples, drag queens, sorority girls, and an unexpected number of patrons over the age of 40. The drinks were omnipresent, as was the weed, and, not surprisingly, ?uestlove from the Roots made an appearance in the crowd (he recently lauded Winehouse for her foray into soul, making her the latest Okayplayer artist). But, though the crowd was different, opener Patrick Wolf suffered the same disinterested reception that the Pipettes received months earlier. Since this concert had sold out long before Wolf was billed as the opener, no one in the packed crowd was actually there to see the long-legged boy. Wolf, dressed in knee-high socks, a white waistcoat, and belly button-gripping black shorts, performed songs like “Get Lost” and “Accidents & Emergency” from his brilliant new album, The Magic Position. Backed by a diverse group of instrumentalists, he also pulled out older tracks like “The Libertine” and “Tristan” from 2005’s Wind in the Wires, shaking glitter out of his orange hair and leaving sparkles in his wake as he pranced about the stage. The audience eventually gave in; despite having to stop and repeat his euphoric “The Magic Position” due to instrumentalist errors, he was forgiven. Still, while Winehouse received adulation throughout the show, she had to ask the audience twice if they enjoyed Wolf, a blow that surely hurt his pride. Of course, that’s what one should expect at a Winehouse gig. Any opener is inconsequential compared to the woman with the voice. Winehouse has built her image on a combination of over-applied make-up, a demi-bee-hive, soul-splattered production (courtesy of Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi), her gritty voice, and, of course, her tumultuous love affair with substances. It’s the latter that gets the most attention. But despite the watchful eye of the public, Winehouse remains apathetic and cool, two traits that make her absolutely enticing. She exposes her flaws and failed romances with resolute audacity, and opens up her troubles to anyone with ten bucks in his or her wallet. This self-awareness makes for the perfect blend of lyrics with soul and music based on soul. The public is drawn to Winehouse’s swirl of emotion and controversy, and, as this audience expands, her vices start to look more like blessings. In this, the first of two sold-out shows at the Highline Ballroom, Winehouse waltzed her way through tunes of heartbreak while brandishing a new contribution to the controversy: a ring on her finger. The singer has recently gotten engaged to Blake Filder-Civil, the inspiration for “Tears Dry on Their Own” and several other lambasting tracks on her newest LP. Filder-Civil was present at the show, sitting against the dim-lit walls and making eyes with Winehouse throughout the performance. While she crooned about her quarries with Filder-Civil, he watched and even cheered her on — an image that, for those in the know, was in direct conflict with the emotions being blasted from the stage. As a result, Winehouse’s lyrical honesty was undercut by an unforeseen hypocrisy, as her then-present emotions clearly didn’t coincide with the ones that inspired her to record her album. Fortunately for the crowd, the conflict between the alcoholic Winehouse and the talented/ambitious Winehouse had not disappeared, and the struggle between the two personas was glaringly present. As her set began and her ten-piece back-up band, the Dap Kings, took the stage, the singer took the first opportunity to take sips of her poison for the evening. Opening with “Addicted,” a track unexplainably excluded from her U.S. release, she bent to take sips of her orange drink during the instrumental break. Upon finishing the tune, Winehouse addressed the crowed with a half-hearted “thank you,” then, after being graced with another drink from a stagehand, gave a significantly more emphatic and comedic “thank you” as she sipped.
Later during “Back to Black,” she looked torn holding her drink in one hand and the microphone in the other – she swung her head back and forth as if weighing which one was more enticing. Sure enough, alcohol was the victor, and by the end of the set, Winehouse was joking that fans in the front row might need to read out her set list if and when her vision became too blurry. Although her affair with liquor was front and center, the music never suffered. Winehouse is one of the most gifted pop singers to grace the microphone in years, and despite her personal struggles, her talent always shines through. Unlike pop stars who are studio creations valuing showmanship and entertainment over the average quality of their voices, Winehouse is truly talented. Throughout the show, the singer’s voice was in excellent shape; each song offered an alternative experience, one different from the album. She riffed on almost every note, fully in control of her vocal fluctuations. If anything, it seems Winehouse dumbed down her vocals on her album, taking great pains to make the songs more accessible. In front of an audience, she commanded her voice with a boldness that brought new life to each track. Her vocals — sounding like a sweet voice muffled by wool — matched the horn-drenched sounds of her band. With a gorgeous voice on a drunken body, Winehouse ran through most of the tracks on her latest effort and a few from her first jazz-inspired record, Frank. The set included a diverse spectrum of topics, ranging from the pessimism of “Love is a Losing Game” and “Wake Up Alone” to the self-examining “Tears Dry on Their Own” and set-closer “You Know I’m No Good.” Winehouse reverted to her jazzy past with songs like “Jerry” and “Fuck Me Pumps” but managed to keep the audience entertained by throwing in an interpolation of Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” during “He Can Only Hold Her” and a soulful cover of the Zutons’ “Valerie.” The music’s tightness was matched by the audience’s reception and knowledge of Winehouse’s discography, as most clapped their hands to the thundering drums of “Rehab” and crooned along to “Me and Mr. Jones (Fuckery).” The hour-long set left the room satisfied; some were even gracing the rest of us with their own shower-friendly renditions of “Rehab” as we left. If Winehouse brought her personal life on stage with her, that boldness only made her music stronger. Even though she could be seen mouthing the words “I love you” to her fiancé as she left the stage for the evening, audience members could still walk away from the show with the impression that the night was only about making gorgeous soul music, that no hypocrisy was at play. Or, they could leave with the idea that Winehouse was merely an entertaining figure boozing her way through the set. For Winehouse, this “jack-of-all-trades” appeal may come to an end with the consecration of her marriage, but for now, everyone can revel in the fact that Back to Black is as catchy as it is self-revealing, two qualities that make Winehouse a powerhouse performer.