Wasting no time to establish her new hip-hop-flavored style, Whitney Houston knocked out three tunes from her new “My Love Is Your Love” album at a sold-out Universal Amphitheatre, providing a point of view far removed from that of the over-the-top balladry for which she has come to be known. In her first tour in five years, Houston appeared incredibly at ease performing a wide range of material, proffering herself believably as mother, friend and religious believer. Casual in her rapport with the audience, yet exquisitely dressed, Houston offered spectacular vocals without being forced into a histrionic showcase on every other phrase.
She and musical director Michael Baker put together a show that impressed at almost every turn. Her hip-hop numbers — “Get It Back,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “If I Told You That” opened the concert — hold water thanks to the maturity of the lyrics and the twisting nature of beats that never lose track of the melodies.
Houston isn’t attempting, a month shy of turning 36, to play a young woman’s game — she expresses adult concerns in her songs, embracing acceptance, compromise and forgiveness instead of distance and a doe-eyed concept of love. Not surprisingly, the privacy-invasion tune “In My Business” was given a defiant, and very diva-like, staging in which her four dancers swarmed around her with cameras as she attempted to fight them off. Husband Bobby Brown lent some comic relief at the end of the bit, grabbing a camera and taking a picture of Houston’s behind.
That sort of good-natured fun went a long way toward presenting Houston in a new light. Separately, she turned her back to the audience and touched up her makeup as the band played the opening introduction to a song, and when she asked the audience to sing the endless “shoop shoop” chorus from her “Waiting to Exhale” hit, she didn’t worry about insulting the fans whose enthusiasm and singing were lacking. The woman’s got a sense of humor.
And after several comments about the strength of their marriage, Houston, Brown and daughter Bobbi Kristina engaged in a bit of improvised singing that bore all the signs of a happy family. Best of all, not one moment of her show felt overly stagy.
Musically, Houston divided the evening into relatively neat segments: new hip-hop, hit ballads, hit dance numbers (this section was preceded by the one costume change), a pair of gospel numbers and the finale, “I Will Always Love You,” which, surprisingly, was the only song on which she saw fit to flash her impressive vocal range. Encore for the nearly 2-1/2 hour concert was current fiery single “It’s Not Right But It’s OK.”
Houston stuck to the arrangements of her records, save for an updated version of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which was given a suitable house groove. When she dove into a pair of gospel numbers, Myron McKinley switched from electronic keyboards to the acoustic piano and altered the evening’s timbre, giving the musical accompaniment a human edge in line with Houston’s message of togetherness, prayer and family. Her ballads could use more pure instruments in the backing; the electronics get the job done in reproducing the record, but when an artist like Houston is giving that extra effort, as she appeared to be on this night, there shouldn’t be anything hindering the complete delivery.
Stage set of three massive round fan grills against a starry night backdrop was sufficient eye candy without detracting from the onstage action. Similarly, Houston’s outfits — silk peddle pushers with a floral design and black top with a calf-length jacket; a tight, white floral gown, both with high heels — nicely balanced dignity and character and allowed her to move well with grace.
Only blemish on this otherwise tremendous show was the four dancers. Neither graceful nor athletic, their movements were out of synch and even distracting from the elegant Houston.