It was Glastonbury, so it was raining. It wasn’t the deluge of the day before, which had reduced the main field to a mud bath for Paul McCartney’s headline set, but the light drizzle was still a heavy disincentive to leave the cosy late-afternoon canvas bar and trudge through the sludge to the other side of the site. Unless you had a very good reason, which I did.
I had been blown away by Amy Winehouse’s debut album, Frank, the previous autumn. At the time we were enduring a minor plague of tastefully soulful, jazz-flecked young female vocalists – Norah Jones, Katie Melua, the late Eva Cassidy – but Frank confirmed that here was something else entirely: an original voice.
Musically vivacious and yet emotionally vulnerable, Frank was a trove of conflict and apparent contradiction. Winehouse’s rich vocal had the sultriness of Etta James on heartbreak lament You Sent Me Flying, yet she was a trash-talking, 21st-century B-girl on anti-gold-digger anthem Fuck Me Pumps. She was also laugh-out-loud funny on I Heard Love Is Blind, with its non-apology to a lover for a recent infidelity: “I was thinking of you when I came.”
I interviewed Winehouse and it all made sense. Still only 19, she was a riot; her no-filter candour and humour were exhilarating. She freely slagged off Frank, saying it had been diminished by record-label meddling, and laughed when I remarked that one-night stands were a lyrical theme of the album: “Yeah, I’ll shag anyone! I always say that it’s only cheating if you hold their hand!”
So I picked my way through the Glastonbury mud that Sunday teatime, suspecting that she was unlikely to be dull. I saw one of the best festival sets that I can remember.
The word about her was clearly already spreading, and a decent-sized crowd were huddled against the rain in front of the small stage. Not that the elements had any notable impact on Winehouse, who took to the stage in cut-off shorts, a pink crocheted top and the broadest, most winning of grins.
Her hip, subtly funky band were tight, locking into a cool groove from the off, but it was when Winehouse opened her mouth that the show lifted off. Live, her voice was a marvel, an expressive and yearning croon, rich with resonance and implication. It was pitch-perfect, and yet wildly idiosyncratic – how is she doing that?
She sang about her life and wittily externalised her inner monologue; sultry and carnal, she was palpably in thrall to her raw yet knowing self-penned songs. Stronger Than Me lambasted a hapless lover for being far too in touch with his feminine side for her liking. “I have to comfort you, every day,” she rasped, a scornful Kat Slater transported from the Queen Vic into the body of a bawdy soul siren. “Are you gay?” Her defiant grin conveyed that she knew she shouldn’t sing that, and she just didn’t care.
That grin spread through the growing crowd as it sank in just how good she was. The mellifluous Brother held more barbs as she chastised her older sibling for his selfish treatment of their mum: “She needs a son, not a sob story.” Like so many of her lines, it deserved a mic drop of its own.
She was mesmerising, a tyro Ella Fitzgerald as she sang, then a cackling standup comedian when the music stopped. Advising us to “ignore the shit weather”, she launched into In My Bed, and then it happened: one of those Glastonbury moments. As she sang, “I sleep alone, the sun comes up”, the rain stopped, the clouds parted to yield shafts of light, and a rainbow formed over the stage. Winehouse’s beam mirrored the sun’s: “See, I said this shit would stop!” It felt as if she even had the elements wrapped around her little finger.
Winehouse had raw talent to burn and her musical potential looked limitless. Three years later, post-Back to Black, I saw her at Glastonbury again, this time on the Pyramid stage. She had a precipitous beehive and dramatic slashes of kohl and looked notably more brittle and less comfortable in her skin. The voice was intact. The joie de vivre wasn’t. She was still musically magnificent, that second time around, but when I think of Amy Winehouse, I prefer to remember the rainbow rather than the rain.