Great album .. not so sure about the show. Rock column, Mail on Sunday, November 25 2007

Amy Winehouse
Brixton Academy, London

Arcade Fire
Alexandra Palace, London

Parlophone, out tomorrow

Amy Winehouse is having a Dickensian year. Commercially, it’s been the best of times: Back To Black, her masterpiece, is Britain’s biggest seller of 2007. But the rest of her life, from the husband in jail to the drugs and self-harm, is a mess.

While showbiz history is full of stars with hapless personal lives who could turn it all to gold on stage, Winehouse isn’t quite among them. For a stage-school graduate, she is an uncertain performer. At three previous shows I had seen, she offered little beyond the bruised majesty of her voice. At 24 she is still learning her craft, and the drugs don’t help.

This show starts unpromisingly, 45 minutes late. Diva-like behaviour is fine as long as it comes with the full package: charisma, emotional engagement, the ability to work a crowd. But most of Winehouse’s resources seem to have gone into merely getting here.

She walks off stage repeatedly, fiddles constantly with her dress, plays too many so-so covers, leaves the band intros to one of her tireless dancers, and rambles ineptly between songs. The crowd listen with some sympathy, but when one female fan says, ‘Just sing!’, she speaks for us all.

Not everything goes wrong. The Academy is the right place for Winehouse – she could fill the O2 now, but has the sense not to try – and her nine-man band exude energy. The set design, just like the sound, tips a stylish hat to Harlem in 1960.

She looks the part herself in a sawn-off cocktail dress (the standard lamps behind her are wearing longer skirts than she is). Her success is partly down to a strong visual identity. She is a walking caricature, all head and bust, with parallel lines for legs. Essentially, she’s Marge Simpson with three adjustments: black hair instead of blue, a voice that can soar as well as rasp, and a husband who is hopeless without being funny.

The evening picks up at 10.45, when Amy gets round to playing her best tunes. Rehab is still a gem, even if you half-wish she would change the words to ‘yes, yes, yes’. I Told You I Was Trouble is sung with feeling, Me And Mr Jones has an irresistible groove, and the Zutons’ Valerie, now her biggest hit, finally lights up the crowd. But you still come away feeling that you have seen a great studio singer.

Winehouse should have been at Alexandra Palace to see the Arcade Fire, who are just as good live as on record. They too have ten people on stage, cooking up a rich, thick sound. They too have outstanding songs. But they also have a singer, Win Butler, who hurls himself into the task.

The difficult second album gave these gifted Canadians no trouble at all. Instead they have endured the difficult second world tour, struggling at certain festivals and arenas. They had such a bad time in Nottingham that one band member vowed never to return.

Ally Pally, however, suits them, offering size plus character. Their intensity, best sampled in church, is strong enough to reach the faithful at the back. A compelling evening peaks with the surging Black Mirror, the epic Keep The Car Running and the pacifist anthem Intervention.

The good news is Kylie Minogue is back from breast cancer with her tenth album, elegantly entitled X. The bad news is it’s as anonymous as her last one, Body Language. Kylie’s strongest suit, her sparkling personality, is barely discernible. Her voice is often reduced to a processed whisper. The cover shots are typically artful, but the music, all synthesisers and no soul, is wearing too much make-up.

Half the album is electro-glam, following the trend set by Goldfrapp and popularised by Madonna, making this an imitation of an imitation of a sound that was quite retro already. Elsewhere, one track echoes Madonna’s Ray Of Light, another strolls onto Lily Allen’s turf, and a third returns, feebly, to Kylie’s own days with Stock Aitken & Waterman. Only the sparky single, 2 Hearts, and the playful Nu-Di-Ty (‘Time to strip!’) have the authentic Kylie stamp.