Angie Stone Shepherd's Bush Empire, London W12
What with her Earth-momma smock, huge dandelion-clock Afro (a superstructure in its own right - I hope she got planning permission), shining ebony skin, dignified prettiness to rival Lauryn Hill, and rootsy retro sheen, Angie Stone looks more like a well-upholstered Marsha Hunt throwback than the million-selling contemporary nu-soul artist she actually is. It's the songs which put it all in perspective - to understand Stone's appeal is to see her swaying about the stage at the Shepherds Bush Empire, alternating the kind of range and strength (velvety purring, crystal-clear trilling, roof-raising wailing) that the world hasn't heard nearly enough of since that other queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, decided to go all fat, lazy and grumpy on us.
Even more impressively, Stone, now in her late thirties, does it all with the curvy, grounded swagger of a real woman, happy in her own skin, at her own pace, in her own sweet time. Stone might flirt creatively with the more modern echelons of hip-hop and R&B, but that's where it ends. There's no cringe-worthy jerking forward of the crotch to prove that she's 'down' with the crew. No 'big' dance routines with her sweating inside a foam tracksuit, knees buckling under a ton-and-a-half of ugly gold jewellery. Controversy and headlines aren't natural bedfellows for the cool and smooth Ms Stone. Her artistic contemporaries (Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, India Arie, Macy Gray) might bring more sex and fire to the party but, as her albums Black Diamond and Mahogany Soul prove, Stone's more your smoky, unforgettable slow-burner, so diaphanously subtle you find yourself inhaling her melodies rather than listening to them. All of which (and two children) might help explain why it took Angie Stone more than 20 years to become that most amusing and misleading of showbiz oxymorons - the overnight success.
In the Eighties, Stone was a rapper on Sugar Hill Records, with female rap trio The Sequence, moving on, in the mid-Nineties, to join Vertical Hold. During this time, she remained mainly in the background, producing and writing for likes of Mary J. Blige and D'Angelo (her one-time mentor and boyfriend, by whom she has a son). It was only in 1999 that the two million-selling Black Diamond finally dragged soul music's best kept secret out of the backroom and into the spotlight. Her latest album, the classy (albeit too bloody long at 70 minutes) Mahogany Soul, further establishes Stone's singular talent. Before we get too teary-eyed about it all, though, it seems wise to point out that Stone seems to have arrived at late success with an an ego that rivals her hairdo in terms of size and circumference. Tonight, she keeps introducing songs (her own songs) with phrases such as 'This is so wonderful' and 'I know you will love this'. And don't even talk to her about Macy Gray, whom she is constantly compared to in Britain (to the point of being dubbed Macy mark II) but was outselling in the US three to one at the time of her debut. 'Macy is Tina Turner to my Aretha Franklin,' Stone has snapped to interviewers. Go, girlfriend, go.
What sets Stone apart is her classicism. Whereas others might be more relevant or edgy, Stone is the real soul deal, conjuring up the old devils of love, heartbreak and survival and making them her own. Tonight, she keeps it simple with what basically amounts to a dogged run-through of Mahogany Soul. There'd been complaints about the previous evening's show precisely because of this (Stone refers to them), but it doesn't seem to make any difference. Apart from a rather disappointing little Stars on 45-style medley, you still only get to enjoy a few Black Diamond high points ('My Life Story', 'Everyday', 'Black Diamonds And Blue Pearls'). Luckily, there is plenty to enjoy, from the misty funk of 'Wish I Didn't Miss You' (weaving in and out of the O'Jays' 'Backstabbers') through to the lively R&B of 'Time of the Month' (even if it does come a bit too soon after Blige's 'PMS'), and the sassy coo of 'Pissed Off' (about a jealous, possessive boyfriend and hotly rumoured to be written about D'Angelo). Not that Stone is that interested in, as she puts it, 'dogging the black man'. Her latest single is 'Brotha', which is all about going against the trend by celebrating and uplifting the man in your life. The Empire crowd love it, especially when Stone gets a bunch of men from the crowd up onstage to see who is the best singer.
It's a kind of Pop Idol for the nu-soul generation, only this time you don't have to watch with your fingers in your ears. Among the contenders there's a rapper, a silent dancer salaciously shimmying up and down Stone's body (bizarre), a very cheeky rhyming Rasta, and (the winner, ladies and gentlemen) a soul singer who's so (suspiciously?) good that Stone's hair seems to expand still further in delighted shock.
Usually this kind of thing is dreary and interminable. Like the ritual of 'introducing the band' (something else Stone does at yawningly boring length), it just seems like a good way of killing time without actually performing yourself. However, just this once, it is genuinely funny and heart-warming to see west London's finest strut their stuff for the cackling crowd, brazenly trying to get it on with Stone in the process. She chivvies them away like an indulgent queen, then segues straight into a 'No More Rain (In This Cloud)' that takes her voice and bats it straight up into the furthest point of heaven. Top that, Macy mark one.
Three to see
Travis London Wembley Arena (Tues, Wed); Manchester Evening News Arena (Fri); Belfast Odyssey (Sat) Languid, melodic rock from Scotland's nicest band.
Gomez Scala, London N1 (Tues) Bluesy former Mercury Prize winners unveil material from new album In Our Gun .
Dot Allison 100 Club, London W1 (Thurs) Former One Dove vocalist treats us to one of the great voices in British music.