Apologies for being gone for a minute – I was back up in the Bay last weekend for a quick trip for this. I’ve been meaning to post something about Amy Winehouse earlier – and I will be doing something more substantial by early April – but for now, let me just share that I caught her at The Roxy in Hollywood (yes kids, O.W. actually does venture outside the house once in a while) and am pleased to report that I was well-nigh entertained by Ms. Winehouse.
(And no, it’s not because she was drunk off her ass, singing “Beat It”).
There’s been a lot written about Winehouse over the last few months – please see my dear friend and colleague, Ann Powers’ recent profile in the LAT – and it’s not hard to understand why: she’s a Jewish, British gal gifted with a voice that’s part of the Billie Holiday/Erykah Badu/Lauryn Hill/Madeline Peryoux school of bourboned warmth and rasp, who was a jazz torch singer last album and has, for Back To Black, reinvented herself into a Stax/Motown era song slinger.
There’s much that could be said about artists like Winehouse or Joss Stone – modern day Teena Marie-types whose blue-eyed soul performances raise provocative questions around race and performance but I’m going to put those aside for now…except to say that I was marveling a bit at how her and her band were set-up. Though two of her backing band (the Dap-Kings – more on them in a moment) are African American, the most prominent Black folk on stage were her back-up singers – two very nattily dressed Black men in fitted dark suits – who were on Winehouse’s left and spent more time swaying to the music than actually singing. And then there’s Winehouse herself – she of the faux-beehive coif, tatted arms, arched eyebrows and ever-so-exotic racial indeterminacy. It’s an intriguing spectacle to be sure.
But yeah – for those who listened to Back To Black and thought initially, “wow, this kind of sounds like a Sharon Jones album” it’s because Winehouse’s touring band and studio band for at least half the album (all the tracks produced by Mark Ronson) are none other than the Dap-Kings.
It’s a good look for Winehouse – or should I say, a good sound. What makes her album so much fun to listen to and what made her show so enjoyable was the fact that her tunes just sound great and that’s largely thanks to the work that producers Ronson and Salaam Remi (yeah, that Salaam Remi) plus the Dap-Kings put into giving Winehouse’s charming soul brogue a bed of sound to play off of.
I’m not saying this to take away from Winehouse as a songwriter – sure, “Rehab” is pretty catchy in a Lily Allen/Nellie McKay sort of way – but let’s be honest…we’re swimming in any number of neo/retro-soul artists at the moment and what gives Winehouse the current edge – besides her tabloid exploits – is that she’s got a great sound working for you.
I’ll have a special post in a few weeks that addresses this, namely by situating Winehouse’s new album against the new “tradition” of retro soul albums that have cropped up in the last half dozen years or so.
What I want to say right now is that it does bear the question: would Winehouse seem as intriguing if not for her British + Whiteness? Coincidentally, I recently interviewed none other than Sharon Jones, who rightfully deserves recognition as the pioneering retro-soul singer for our era, and though she had nothing negative to say about the woman who’s currently touring with the band she normally rocks with, Jones did note that she finds it disappointing that she’s never enjoyed the same level of media attention as a lot of these new soul singers coming out of the UK (most of whom, notably, are young, handsome/pretty and White).
The fact that Jones is a Black woman in her 50s does make a difference here – in being seen as more authentic, she’s also less a novelty (though her age does put her into a different generation entirely) and thus less likely to have a platoon of publications trying to profile her with the same fervor that Winehouse as enjoyed.
Is there some kind of double standard going on here? Yeah – absolutely. Ironically, Jones was too young in the 1960s and ’70s to have been able to become part of the tradition of funk/soul divas like Marva Whitney or Lyn Collins but now she’s too old to roll in the same crowd as the Joss Stones and Corinne Bailey Raes.
As you can sense, my thoughts are rather jumbled here and I’m not trying to come at Winehouse sideways – I actually thoroughly enjoyed her show (which is saying a lot considering how much I hate having to drive into West Hollywood for any reason) and I plan to write more about her in the near future. But it’s impossible for me to listen to her and the Dap-Kings perform and wonder, “well – would Sharon Jones and this same band have sold out the same venue?” and if the answer is “no,” that should be cause for pause.
In the meanwhile, check out her latest video, this the title song off the new CD: