No matter how adventurous they might be in other areas of their career, the one thing most pop superstars refuse to take chances with is how they play their hits in concert. That's why most successful singers take an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to their back catalog; they know that nothing riles an audience more than hearing a familiar song performed in an unfamiliar fashion.
Not Whitney Houston, though. Last night at Merriweather Post Pavilion, she played fast and loose with her hits, funking up "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," slipping a disco edge into "So Emotional," and even adding a rap segment to "How Will I Know." By the time she was finished with them, most bore only a passing resemblance to the radio versions most fans know and love.
Yet the fans cheered them anyway.
How could they not? After all, most of the re-settings worked better than the originals, adding new life to dated arrangements and putting the old songs on par rhythmically with her newer material. Although this rethink short-changed her ballads a bit, condensing "All At Once," "Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" into a single medley, Houston was FTC
wise enough to leave plenty of room for vocal embellishment in these truncated renditions.
Which, after all, is really what the fans wanted anyway. Sure, Houston has recorded some catchy tunes, but what really sets her apart is her ability to spice standard pop melodies with passionate, gospel-schooled soul singing -- and that was precisely what made last night's performance so exciting.
She didn't always have that spark, unfortunately. Try as she might, she added little to the new jack groove of "Anymore" and "I'm Your Baby Tonight," and as usual played up the most maudlin aspects of "The Greatest Love of All."
But when that spark caught, her singing was incendiary. From her spirited re-invention of "Saving All My Love for You" to the straight-up gospel of "I'm So Glad Revelation Is Here," Houston proved that she understood the virtue of a well-placed shout, the value of note-bending melisma. Hearing her set that magnificent voice free was a sort of revelation -- particularly if all you have to go by is the sound of her albums.
The show wasn't all Houston. To give her time to change costumes (which ranged from a slinky black evening gown to a sheer blue bodysuit with strategically placed spangles), her backing band had several solos. Her brother, Gary Houston, offered a by-rote rendition of "Mercy, Mercy Me" and "What's Going On" that seemed an obvious time-killer.
But saxophonist Kirk Whalum cut loose on soprano at one point with an energetic fusion instrumental that left the listener wondering why he still worked as a sideman.