Whitney Houston has made the transition from studio to stage performer without missing a beat. And without risking one, either.
Houston -- by now we all know that her name is pronounced like the city, not the street -- was silky-smooth and slinky-fast on the Jones Beach Theater stage, her body a graceful, spiky motion machine topped by a frame of backlit frizz, and her voice carrying all the way to Westbury.
She beat out the raindrops by about 10 minutes, a sign that somebody up there liked her. Everybody out there at Jones Beach liked her, as she led the audience like an expert tour guide through her smashingly successful, 6 million-seller debut album, drawing circles within circles with her voice and sending each number up to the sky like a silver circus balloon. Some soared, some drifted.
Coming on the heels of Grammys, hit singles and all manner of celebrity, Houston obviously has something to prove in this summer tour: that she's not just a product of the record biz, but a real thing. She brought reams of good help with her. Clive Davis, the Arista wunderkind president who shaped and developed her, was in the wings if he was anywhere nearby, but Houston's older brother, Gary Garland, was part of the backup chorus and joined sis on a couple of duets. The band of pros, like the music, was hand-picked and built for backing The Star.
There was a real scare when the set opened; the band played "Also Spake Zarathustra," which is a musical cliche that is exceeded only by . . . well, by nothing. I feared Houston might descend onto the stage from a spaceship, attended by aliens.
But there was the music to Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something" -- with a twist of Whitney, alternately trilling, breathy and growly, kicking up the edge of the stage, having fun, fun, fun. And then it was a just a short jump into Hit City: the driving "How Will I Know," then ballads such as "Saving All My Love for You" and "You Give Good Love."
Folks who sell real good audio equipment will tell you that the best way to judge gear is to listen to how well it reproduces a woman's voice. Houston's voice is that way; it is a musical instrument. And her vocal manner -- if Waterford crystal could sing, it would sound like her -- is so perfectly suited to her hand-picked material that you almost don't notice that she rarely risks stepping out from the middle of the road.
I'd readily forgive her if she skidded on a little dirt by the shoulder or tried an illegal right on red along the way (her frantic performance in a 30-second TV ad for Diet Coke is sexier than was all of Saturday night's two hours). You will never mistake Whitney Houston for Tina Turner, who can suggest volumes with a vocal twitch and is all coquette where Houston is a sort of demure Valley Girl.
If anything, Houston live is too restrained, too bound by the parameters of a very conventional, contemporary hit-radio record. This may change with touring and confidence (and with more encouraging audiences than she faced down Saturday night), but judging from the two numbers she previewed from the next record (due in January), we won't meet a new Whitney Houston for some time. One of the songs, "I'm Gonna Dance With Somebody," is a snappy up-tempo chart winner -- and a clone of "How Will I Know."
If what the world needs now is another Dionne Warwick or Diana Ross, we've got her, but I'd be more grateful for another Nancy Wilson. There are touches of a soulful, sensational torch singer in Houston, but they were mucked up by syrupy background production. Excise the drums and guitars and synthesizers and helping voices and the cloying lyrics; reach back to a Cole Porter songbook and add just a piano (a cozy lounge and a Cognac would help), and Whitney Houston could be even more stunning.