‘No matter what they take from me,’ sang Whitney Houston towards the end of a peculiar evening in Hammersmith, ‘they can’t take away my dignity.’ You want a bet on that? Eight years after she died, here was Houston — in holographic form — treading the boards once more. In death, as in life, she continues to be an object for others to make money from.The Houston on stage was not, of course, the addict who crumpled towards the end of her life; nor the one who couldn’t hit the high notes of ‘I Will Always Love You’ on her final tours. It was the beautiful young woman with the staggering voice. The voice was piped in; the hologram made the occasional lateral movement, but mostly stood centre stage, a perfectly functional backing band behind her working their way through the greatest hits.
The voice, a thing of wonder, floated oddly on top of the live music, a little shrill and echoey. The production values — some lit geometric shapes and four dancers — were more seaside special than arena tour. But the whole thing was grimly compelling. The hologram appeared to have been made with only a handful of gestures, one of them being pointing towards the stage-left front rows, where someone must have felt very unsettled indeed. That was one oddity. Another was that ‘Whitney’ held her mic a good foot away from her mouth. It’s not as if there were any musical reason for a holographic singer to hold her holographic mic closer, but it’s just not how Houston did it, as ten seconds on YouTube will show.
The crowd lapped it up: ‘We love you, Whitney!’ At the close, the dancers formed a chevron with the hologram at its point and applauded it.
The diametric opposite of the Whitney hologram was on display across three nights over the weekend — two at the Electric Ballroom, one at Bush Hall in west London — in the form of the American sextet the Hold Steady. No flashy effects here, and not very many women. What there was, though, is something extraordinary: six middle-aged men who happen to be great at rock’n’roll — by a margin my favourite band of this century — and a sense of community that I have never seen around another band. Fans had travelled from all over the world for this residency, one of a handful they play each year in various cities.
Honesty compels me to admit that the Hold Steady’s singer, Craig Finn, has become a close friend. Had they been terrible last weekend, I would have avoided any conflict of interest by just not writing about them. But they weren’t terrible; they were ecstatic and incandescent. In Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge they have a pair of guitarists who can riff like Keith Richards, and colour and solo like Mick Taylor — the songs had details and flourishes that the recorded versions don’t — and Finn has always been a remarkable frontman. He didn’t sing so much as spit his words — dense with allusions and internal rhymes, referring in equal part to Catholicism, drugs and rock mythology — while gesticulating frantically, like the drunk at the bar who won’t let you leave until he’s pulled out one last tall story.
Their triumphant songs about desperate lives are probably too idiosyncratic for a huge audience, which means you can still see them with 1,500 other people, rather than 15,000, and feel the full force of them in full flight. If you’ve ever loved Springsteen or the Stones or Thin Lizzy, get a ticket when they return next year. If you end up disappointed, find me afterwards and I’ll explain why you’re wrong.