AMY WINEHOUSE: AT THE BBC (2012)
1) Know You Now; 2) Fuck Me Pumps; 3) In My Bed; 4) October Song; 5) Rehab; 6) You Know I'm No Good; 7) Just Friends; 8) Love Is A Losing Game; 9) Tears Dry On Their Own; 10) Best Friends, Right?; 11) I Should Care; 12) Lullaby Of Birdland; 13) Valerie; 14) To Know Him Is To Love Him.
More often than not, the barrel-scraping process these days involves the BBC and their obsession to press the «Record» button every time somebody crosses the threshold into one of their studios. More often than not, the results are only of serious interest for hardcore fans of the somebody in question. With Amy Winehouse, this is somewhat different: she never had the time to release an official live album in her lifetime — and, moreover, her reputation of a live artist was seriously soiled by all the scandalous reports on drunk performances and embarrassed walk-outs towards the tragic end of her career. Essentially, we have next to no reminders of what it really was that launched that career — her inspired and creative performances in small London jazz clubs.
Hence, this rag-taggy collection of live recordings from various local gigs, taped by the BBC (At The BBC is a somewhat misleading title: most of the tracks come from festivals such as «T in the Park» or TV shows such as Jools Holland, so The BBC Presents would have been more appropriate), anyway, this collection is an essential purchase for everybody who has no problem with recognizing Amy as a major artist of her generation. The package consists of a small DVD with six performances from a small church-held gig in 2006, and a CD with material scattered from 2004 to 2009 — the «golden age», during which Amy's rule over British R&B remained uncontested. Hits and classics are interspersed with little-known obscurities and covers, bits of stage banter and radio host dialogs are included for authenticity, and the recording quality is predictably flawless — this is the BBC, after all.
Like every seasoned R&B performer, Amy always comes across as loose and free-flowing when performing live, sometimes coming so close to «chaos» that you almost start wondering just how influential booze and other substances must have been in that particular moment. But apparently they weren't: on each and every one of these recordings, she is actually in complete control, always picking herself up and shooting back into space just as she seems almost ready to hit the ground. Take a listen to ʽRehabʼ, for instance — her phrasing on this live performance takes far more risks than the studio original, with surprising modulation decisions and an idiosyncratic «stutter» that sounds amusing rather than annoying. Of course, she is really working based on the pattern of the average great jazz vocalist, searching for a one-in-a-million vocal style that would walk a tight balance between «natural» and «ohmigosh, what is that?», but many people do not succeed in that register, coming out with laughable results — with Amy, it is always her that gets the last laugh, no matter how much fun one might poke at her «heroin-addicted toothless old hag» impersonation.
Most of the tracks performed come from the first two albums (and are not limited to major hit singles — ʽOctober Songʼ and ʽJust Friendsʼ are two very welcome inclusions), but towards the end you also have the lady sharpening her teeth on old pop standards (ʽI Should Careʼ, ʽLullaby Of Birdlandʼ) and on Phil Spector (ʽTo Know Him Is To Love Himʼ), all of which sound predictable, but pleasant in «Amy Winehouse mode». Still, nothing beats ʽRehabʼ and ʽYou Know I'm No Goodʼ (the latter gives me one more pretext to lament the misuse of that wonderful bluesy bassline in the intro — how come its kickass potential was wasted after the first couple of beats?): it would be strange if Amy were less emotional and convincing on her own personal stuff than an old Phil Spector love ballad.
Possibly, a full-fledged live album representing a single event would have been a better choice for release, and I have no doubt that a whole bunch of these will be coming up — plenty of stuff has already been released on DVD or showed up on YouTube, and Amy's nimble backing band is always a delight to hear — but this particular assortment, without necessarily turning into a cheap «greatest hits live», shows the overall scope, and could even work as a perfect introduction to Amy's values for the uninitiated (a «classier» introduction, in fact, than any best-of collection). Thus, although I am no big fan of oversaturating the market with archival residue, so far, everything seems pretty reasonable; big delighted thumbs up here.