Amy Winehouse’s Live At Paradiso Recording Is A Forgotten Gem, And Her Finest Moment
For a start, it contains the best version of 'Back To Black' that exists.
Ten years ago, on July 23, 2011, Amy Winehouse died. She was 27.
It was an achingly tragic end to a short and incredibly bright career — the pain made all the worse for how utterly predictable it all seemed to be. Here was another gifted artist hounded to breaking point by the tabloids and parasitic people around her. And when the public breakdowns came, the grainy photos of a Camden Road walk splashed across every front page, we all delighted in them. And when she left us, we wondered where it all went wrong.
A decade on on, the pain still smarts — as with all artists who depart before their time, we imagine the songs she could have written, the music that would have met our ears. Even now, we’re still reckoning with the music that she released during her brief career: “Her legacy is beyond comprehension,” singer Laura Mvula told NME in a recent article. “I think people will still be unfolding it for decades to come.”
Back To Black hasn’t dulled in the 15 years since its release — Winehouse’s masterpiece is a missive from the depths of despair, as she tries to find her way through depression, addiction, and heartbreak. It wasn’t just a break-up album, it was a desperate reclamation of the self. When her voice curls in the chorus of the title track, there’s not a hair on the back of your neck that won’t stand up.
I return to Back to Black regularly — and her quietly stunning debut Frank as well, probably more these days — but there’s another recording of Winehouse that stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not a studio album, it technically never even had a proper release, but it encapsulates everything that was so powerful about Winehouse the artist and the performer. For those fans that are craving something beyond the studio albums, it’s an uncovered diamond.
Run To Paradiso
In February 2007, four months after its release, Back To Black was the biggest record in the world. Widely critically acclaimed, it had landed at #1 on the UK charts, where it would remain on and off for weeks, while a number of singles from the album hovered around the top 20. It would go on to be the biggest selling album of 2007 — and one of the biggest UK albums of all time.
Winehouse landed with her band in Amsterdam early in February to perform at the legendary venue Paradiso, a converted old 19th-century church. It’s terribly gorgeous — high windows catching the golden light, and the building, in classic Amsterdam fashion, sitting serenely on the edge of a canal.
Winehouse’s set that night, on February 7, wasn’t a particularly big one — it wasn’t a marathon, there weren’t tens of thousands of people in the audience like there would be at Glastonbury, it wasn’t made up of wild experimentation or deviate much from the recorded versions of the tracks. Winehouse didn’t need any of that. Instead, her Paradiso set was simply her: formidable, humble, a true force.
Her agony is fresh and potent, and she pushes her vocals up the register where they threaten to crack and crumble. The album version sounds positively vanilla in comparison.
The entire set ran for just under an hour — every track from Back To Black is included (apart from ‘Some Unholy War’, unfortunately) and fan favourite Frank tracks like ‘Fuck Me Pumps’, ‘Cherry’, and ‘I Heard Love Is Blind’ get a run as well. The band is watertight — it’s unclear whether that night she was backed by Sharon Jones’ epic group the Dap-Kings, who played on the album and toured with her for a time, but regardless, they’re flawless. The horn section and keys bring the album’s Motown obsessions to life — a swinging, back-off-the-beat looseness that allows Winehouse to swoop in and around the rhythm.
As for Winehouse, her voice had never been better. It cracks and sways through tracks like ‘Love Is A Losing Game’, and she flicks it like a whip on ‘Fuck Me Pumps’ and ‘He Can Only Hold Her’, which she blends with Lauryn Hill’s ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’, encouraging her backing band to get in on the vocal action, with a warm laugh. Her voice is strong, honeyed, rich, easy.
Her Paradiso set also contains the best-recorded version of ‘Back To Black’ that exists — her agony is fresh and potent, and she pushes her vocals up the register where they threaten to crack and crumble. The album version sounds positively vanilla in comparison.
Perhaps the best part of it all is how outrageously happy Winehouse sounds throughout it all — she cracks jokes with the audience and her band, she sounds genuinely grateful and earnest when she offers up her thanks to everyone at the end of the night. You can hear it in her vocals the whole way through — a warm, a relaxation. At that moment, everything was perfect, pristine. It would be months until the wheels would fall off.
The full recording of the set is frustratingly hard to come by — aside from a few bonus tracks on the Dutch deluxe edition of Back To Black, it was never officially released, and certainly isn’t on any streaming services. It seems to only exist in bootlegs on the internet and on YouTube (thank god). A burned disc of the set was lodged in our car stereo for years when I was younger — when I questioned my sister recently on where the album actually came from, she shrugged and replied: “Look, it was probably a Pirate Bay job.”
Bootleg, Pirate Bay (not advised), YouTube, or however else, finding the Paradiso set is worth every second of the search. Ten years on, the Amy Winehouse story still feels tragic — but with recordings like this, it’s her warmth and genius that beams through.
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Junkee and Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Chris Christoforou/Redferns