Whitney in Nottingham...

The Observer: Whitney Houston, Trent FM Arena, Nottingham
Morwenna Ferrier, Sunday 18 April 2010

Wherever Whitney Houston goes, she sees love: in God, in Michael Jackson, in shoes, in moisturiser, in "us". But boy does she hate her ex, Bobby Brown. While 46-year-old Houston ploughs on with the UK leg of her world tour, the notorious 80s rapper turned reality TV star is preparing to go to court to reduce his child maintenance payments. Not to Houston, but still. "Any single mothers out there? Coz there's one up here!" shouts Houston, two songs in. "And why am I a single mom? Because stuff happens!" The crowd, which evidently includes a surprising number of single parents, whoops in unison. Satisfied, Houston grins wildly and bellows: "Welcome to the Whitney show!" One-nil Houston.

There was a lot riding on Wednesday's Nottingham gig. The previous week, Houston had postponed three UK shows because of an upper respiratory infection. On Tuesday, playing her first UK show in over a decade, she was booed by some of the Birmingham crowd after her voice strained and wavered. She took long breaks for costume changes and behaved skittishly, giving her backing singers a disproportionate amount of vocals.

The morning after Birmingham's baffling performance, Twitter feeds were awash with amateur YouTube clips, expletives and OMGs. And while in Nottingham the diehard, camera-wielding fans (mostly women in their mid-30s, aka generation Bodyguard) chanted her name throughout, a handful of unsavoury comments were being thrown from the cheaper seats at the back where sat a clutch of ghoulish voyeurs here for the sport.

Houston looks well, if a little thin. Gone is the bleached bob and body-con, and back is the crackled perm and sparkly garb. She even manages to perform her familiar bunny hop dance in stilettos for the first half of the show before stomping around the stage with unwavering authority.

She kicks off successfully with two ballads from her 2009 album, I Look to You, "For the Lovers" and "Nothin' But Love" (love really is a theme with Houston.) The crowd, now warmed up, begins rattling with joy as she struts around all finger-clicky, black and proud during "It's Not Right". The songs include moments of genuine bonkersness. During "Saving All My Love for You" she stoops to moisturise her ankles and on several occasions appears to be singing to her shoes. This leftfield informality is matched by an understated stage set. Silver curtains, no hydraulics, and one screen behind her which flitted sporadically between religious imagery, photographs of the Iraq war (although it could have been any war), snow, emaciated children and Mother Theresa.

What may baffle those indifferent to Houston is how staid her support group is, despite the past tawdry decade. During "My Love Is Your Love" she is flanked by her son and daughter. At one point, a sodden Houston flicked sweat onto the stage. A drop landed on Big Bob, her bodyguard of 20-odd years, who put down his iPhone to smear the liquid lovingly across his cheek. Family, management, super-fans; to these people she can do little wrong. Yes, there's schmaltz but her fans like schmaltz.

However, Houston's rendition of the ultimate schmaltz anthem "I Will Always Love You" must have tested even her most loyal followers. It's a challenging ballad, not least if you've been doing extraordinarily damaging things to your upper body for several years. Her voice wheezes and grates through the high notes. There are attempts to plaster over the cracks with octave changes and smiles, but mid-song she stops, sighs and turns around to compose herself. She does finish the number, in a way, but it isn't spectacular and Houston, frozen, knows it. A momentary silence is pierced by the sound of a child crying in the stalls. Quite why left this song to the end is bewildering. Her Dyson lungs aren't what they used to be.

Houston, of course, is of gospel stock, a cousin of Dionne Warwick, and has sold a gazillion albums worldwide. She is a mega-diva, in the positive sense. Yet she has spent the best part of a decade falling apart, publicly, vociferously denying drug addiction and waxing lyrical about the joys of colonic irrigation.

But no one really wants to see Whitney Houston fall even further from grace. All her stomping, shouting and Brown-jeering feels like a rebuke to her glut of negative press. Whitney Houston is, after all, the voice of the mainstream, of proposals, coitus and hen nights. And, as the old saying goes, if you can survive an addiction to cocaine you can survive just about anything, even if it does monstrous things to your voice.

: 18 APRIL 2010


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