Imelda May | Gig Review
Waterfront, Belfast • Saturday 27 May 2017
By Nerys Coleman • Photography: Tremaine Gregg
Most of us know Imelda May as the Irish singer who looked like she stepped out of the 1950’s, complete with strong rhythms and vocal twangs, not the sultry, dark-haired woman in the media today and indeed, sashaying slowly across the Waterfront stage as I sat expectantly.
Alongside US peers such as Kings of Leon, Black Keys, Blackfoot, and the White Stripes, May has been partly responsible for a resurgence of European interest in the rockabilly genre, scoring three successive number one albums in Ireland, with two of those also reaching the top ten in the UK charts. The Waterfront show, however, is about showcasing her new 2017 album, Love Life Flesh Blood which is a ruminative, folk rock offering and a conscious departure from previous releases.
With perfect pitch and hints of Carey, Winehouse and Holiday, May’s performance is a dichotomy between tortured, inward-looking artist and experienced, extrovert performer. Commanding the stage in her very high ankle boots and little black dress, the seven-piece band cannot distract the viewer from the mesmerizing singer. The new material has a beautiful ”I’m in the French quarter of Montreal” sentiment which adds welcome shade to the faster and older swing tunes. Among these ‘Sixth Sense’ and ‘How Bad Can A Good Girl Be’ create a particularly sensuous and Cohen-esque atmosphere.
Imelda has an extremely natural discourse with her audience and brings an intimate feeling to the Waterfront, introducing songs with her lilting, central-Dublin intonation. With the Irish gift for story-telling, at one point she speaks for nearly five minutes about her recent experiences of being on the road as an international performer in these unpredictable times, and there isn’t a sound in the room. The concert starts to peak half way through when she plays the incredible ‘Black Tears’ which was performed on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny show in 2016. A country ballad with slide guitar and heart-wrenching chorus, it could sit nicely in Ms. Aretha Franklin’s discography. It’s not so surprising to learn the tune was co-penned in the songwriting factory that is Nashville, where May spent a while writing with vigour. “It sped it up, 100 percent! It made me discipline myself because you have a start and a finish time.”
After a 13 year marriage and a child together, Imelda went through a divorce in 2015 and the new album includes pieces that suggest an exorcising and healing of sorts, as in ‘The Longing’, with its Marilyn Manson-esque chorus, overwrought American accent, guitar crescendos and wailing. One way at least, to satisfy such a feeling. The contagious new single ‘Should’ve Been You” bring the audience to their feet for a dance and a couple of jivers get a round of applause as they take centre floor. She throws all her energy into Animals’ cover ‘Cry’ and the zeal never sags with Imelda; she jumps, claps, twists, struts and never misses a note or a beat. As the show starts to close, May invites support act Jack Lukeman to come back on the stage and they duet a stripped back version of U2’s ”All I Want Is You”. She tells us afterwards that it was unrehearsed which really, is just annoying!
The Waterfront lived up to its architectural ambition with crystal clear sound and perfect mixing of the jazz-blues backing band that weren’t unlike the supporting musicians at Bob Dylan’s Dublin gig earlier in the month. The lighting was fun and added a lot of character to the songs. As the final encore rolls into an authentic version of ‘Teenage Kicks’ it’s the perfect end to a beguiling evening from someone who loves to sing and loves to love.
Give this lady a James Bond song!