With Amy Winehouse due to perform in Dubai on Friday, Si Hawkins looks back at her chequered but brilliant career.
Amy Winehouse is back on form
A great pop concert generally contains several guaranteed-to-be-hair-raising moments: the opening bars of a favourite song, the euphoric singalong chorus, the realisation that there will indeed be an encore. The mightiest cheer should always occur at the very beginning, however, when one first glimpses the star. This is particularly dramatic when that star is Amy Winehouse, as it confirms that, yes, she is actually in the country.
Buying a ticket to see the kohl-eyed diva is rather like booking a seat for a major sporting final when your favoured team has yet to qualify: it's a risk, but a risk often worth taking. Anything can happen at an Amy Winehouse gig - if, that is, it goes ahead.
After acquiring superstar status with the 2006 album Back to Black, things went awry for Winehouse. Several tours were cancelled due to "health concerns", and those shows that did take place were often newsworthy for the wrong reasons: misremembered songs, rambling interludes, altercations with fans. Her performances became circus-like; a tragic, compulsive cabaret.
Thankfully, the world of Winehouse has begun to look a little brighter in recent months, and in mid-December it emerged that she would be appearing at the forthcoming Gulf Bike Week, a booking that then remained steadfastly in place. Recent updates from her camp have been heartening, with the singer reportedly in good health for more than a year now, having been shocked into action by a particularly unflattering photograph last January. "Girl, you've got to sort yourself out," pondered the singer, "or you'll be dead soon."
Winehouse made a few brief appearances during that cathartic year off, backing up her teenage protégé Dionne Bromfield on the UK TV show Strictly Come Dancing, playing a few songs at the launch of her own clothing range and staging a lucrative one-off gig for a Russian oligarch. But the Rehab star's relaunch really began in earnest with five full-scale dates in Brazil last month, which seemed to go swimmingly: she made the flight, did the shows, and was pictured looking remarkably healthy back at Heathrow Airport. Then, slightly worryingly, the singer checked into a "private clinic". Dubai ticketholders could be forgiven for fretting that Winehouse might be suffering a relapse, but then the demands of live performance have proven debilitating before. Ironically, her reputation for unreliability was arguably as much the result of overwork as other, external factors.
Winehouse's demeanour has altered markedly since she emerged as a fresh and feisty new singer-songwriter in 2003, with the moderately successful debut album Frank. Three years on and her sound - via the Midas touch of the producer Mark Ronson - and persona had evolved dramatically, but Back to Black's enormous crossover appeal proved a mixed blessing.
In retrospect, releasing a comeback single called Rehab was an open invitation to media scrutiny, but the first major warning that Winehouse was struggling professionally came in mid-2007 as numerous concerts were cancelled, notably a North American tour and a high-profile support slot with the Rolling Stones. By November she was back at work, but far from ready, it transpired, as an admirable determination to fulfil the dates of her own headline tour descended into farce. Foul-mouthed, tear-strewn and generally shambolic, her opening night performance in Birmingham was met with boos and walkouts, and after similar scenes at several subsequent dates, the tour was cancelled.
The singer James Walsh - speaking to The National ahead of his own Dubai concert later this month - was a rare beneficiary of Winehouse's meltdown. His band Starsailor stepped in for those Rolling Stones support slots, and he remains sympathetic. "She gets a lot of stick," muses the singer. "And she's obviously slightly unbalanced. But at that time she was probably just exhausted as well, doing gig after gig after gig." One-off performances were generally easier to negotiate, if also strewn with eccentricities. An appearance at the UK awards ceremony the Brits in early 2008 was well-received, but her request that the audience "make some noise" for husband Blake Fielder-Civil elicited only boos. Blamed for leading the nation's new sweetheart astray, Fielder-Civil had become one of the most unpopular men in Britain.
Media updates on Winehouse's behaviour were now daily occurrences as a will-she/won't-she appearance at the Glastonbury Festival loomed. Having not played a full set for seven months, another cancellation was widely predicted, but she drew one of the biggest audiences in the festival's history, on site and on television. Unfortunately, after a surprisingly solid performance, the singer then waded into the crowd and punched a fan, which dominated the headlines. Further festival appearances over the coming year generally culminated in Winehouse storming off in a huff.
Clearly the wayward singer could use some positive guidance. Even the Rolling Stones, not always the best-behaved of individuals, began offering fatherly advice. Mick Jagger warned that she "might die if she goes down the road that she has taken", Keith Richards suggested that "she should get her act together", but it was the former badboy Ronnie Wood who made a more active contribution.
Having divorced Fielder-Civil in 2009, Winehouse formed an unlikely supportive relationship with the 63-year-old guitarist, who has also adopted a more sober lifestyle since his divorce the same year. Wood was on hand for moral support in Brazil as Winehouse prepared for those comeback concerts, and the results were hugely encouraging. No new material, perhaps, but some intriguing covers - Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams - and even an occasional smile.
Then again, a Winehouse gig wouldn't be quite the same if she was jolly throughout, and the past few years of turmoil may prove an essential rite of passage. Like all great torch-singers her work is marinated in genuine misery, and an early example of what Winehouse might become occurred at the Mercury Music Prize ceremony in September 2007. With Amy-mania in full swing, an audience of cynical music industry professionals eagerly awaited either a no-show or an on-stage car-crash. Instead, they sat in rapt, silent awe as she took the beautifully sad Love is a Losing Game to new levels of exquisite anguish.
You need to pay your dues to sing the blues. If Winehouse has indeed turned a corner, and does turn up on Friday, it could be quite a show.
Amy Winehouse performs at Gulf Bike Week on Friday. Visit www.gulfbikeweek.com for further details.