“I love you Imelda”. That was yelled out at her several times during the Irish star’s triumphant sell-out gig at Leicester’s De Montfort hall last night.
Imelda replied to one lady, with: “The first time anyone shouted that out to me at a gig, I was shocked and shouted back: But you don’t know me’. I want dinner first!”
Imelda May has a lovely warm way with her audience. Her thick Oirish accent is cute and her new glammed up look is sultry. The males fancy her to bits and the females would love to be her. The change in hair style and her overall look, from 50s Rocakbilly pin-up chick to sultry glamour puss is dramatic, and most definitely suits this 43-year-old stunner.
But the jewel in her crown is none of that stuff. It is that instrument of hers. That awesome, God-given gift of a voice. Her control, her power and her range really is something to behold.
The growl, the purr, the charm and the sheer soul of this Dublin gal means she is one of the best singers of either sex to come from Ireland EVER. One of the best singers alive today of any genre, globally, I truly believe. Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, Jools Holland, Van Morrison and Bono – and many other stars – think so too.
She can pen a decent song too. Her latest hit album “Life. Love. Flesh. Blood”, was released in April this year, her fifth solo album, produced by legendary US producer T. Bone Burnett, who has worked his magic with the likes of Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, Roy Orbison, Gregg Allman, Elvis Costello and lots of film and TV soundtracks.
On this new record, she uses it as therapy; an auto-bigraphical journal of her break up with husband Darrel Higham after 18 years, who was also her lead guitarist for many years. Father to their five-year-old daughter Violet. They both suffered heartbreak, but have remained friends for the sake of their only child, and Imelda said recently that she still loves him, but they could not stay together.
She’s had more heartache since, when she fell for someone else and that did not work out. So she pours all that pain and sorrow into her song writing. But she also pens songs of hope and survival.
After she split with Darrel her look changed dramatically, along with her style of music. She was always a Rockabilly queen with the dyed blonde curl in her dark hair and skin-tight leopard skin print dresses. Now she wears all black – a short tight dress and black high heeled boots. Her all black hair, shaggy and over her eyes. She smoulders on that stage and when she looks straight down the barrel of my camera, I am worried it will melt the sensor.
Last but one date on her latest tour, she had to add three shows due to the huge demand, so Hull, Leicester and the last one at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall (22nd Nov) were stuck onto the date sheet. She has three shows in Ireland in December in Belfast, Galway and Dublin.
At the end of a tour, some artists can get road worn and tired, cut songs from their set, singers voices suffer and sound croaky, and the band go through the motions to get the hell off that stage as fast as possible, to get back to the hotel for an end of tour drink and a bloody good sleep. But not tonight. Imelda sounding as strong vocally as if this was show one of a tour. She was out for a lengthy tour in May, did festivals in the summer when I saw her at Cornbury and she was magnificent. Then this latest tour and the additional shows.
She makes reference to “The Rugby lot” being in the house tonight, to screams from the balconies. She skips over what that was all about. I can tell you….back in the summer, she was booked to headline a community festival in Rugby. But she pulled out at the very last minute to fly to the USA to sing the Irish national anthem for Irishman Conor McGregor at the boxing bout against US champion Floyd Mayweather. The people who had bought tickets to see her in Rugby got on social media and her name was mud, and that shit storm hit the press and broadcast media.
But tonight she was singing for some of them and they lapped it up, and towards the end of the show, she did reference them again and said how sorry she was about before, and got a yell back that they forgave her and still loved her. Imelda’s smile said it all.
Her set began with Imelda sat on a black chair at the front of the stage, bathed in white light, her name in giant letters on the black backdrop, alongside her new album title.
The rest of the stage dark, with just bassist and acoustic guitarist for company behind her. She sang “Call Me” and was in fine voice.
She then got rid of the chair and prowled the stage, to belt out two up-tempo tracks, “When It’s Time” and “Human”.
Her band on this tour are Donny Little on lead guitar, Oliver Darling on rhythm guitar, Richard Cardwell on keyboards, Oscar Golding on electric and upright bass and Ryan Aston on drums. Olllie and Richard supply the backing vocals too.
The sound was not 100%. The guitars didn’t ever cut through and up to a certain point in the set, it seemed like the sound engineer had forgotten to put either guitar through the FOH PA system. Screaming guitar solos only audible from the amp and on-stage monitors. Then when the guitar suddenly appeared in the main PA mix, the lead guitar was far too loud and abrasive.
At times, Imelda’s vocal was drowned out a tad by the volume of the band. But, I do know from working that venue since 1978, it can be a sound man’s nightmare, as the sound can bounce off the back wall and come back at you on the stage.
But that little niggle aside, the set was kind of sorted into three parts. Segment one was in third gear and there was some great material offered up. Segment two was when she sent the band off stage for a break, and came to the front and dangled her legs over the side, sat next to her acoustic guitarist Ollie. Spotlight picking them out, as she broke “the fourth wall” of showbusiness, just feet from the front row, and sang three songs.
She gave us a beautiful rendition of her hit, “Inside Out” and then the Irish standard “Molly Malone”, which she has sung on a forthcoming compilation album dedicated to the Great Irish Songbook, featuring different artists.
Telling the crowd she had only done this unplugged spot last night and tonight on this tour. It was a very intimate moment and she has that rare ability to make one believe she is singing just for you. She makes direct eye contact with many who are seated around the hall, and makes it feel like your own front room and an old pal has turned up who can ‘sing a bit’!’ Under-statement of the year there….
She ends this showstopping and brave moment, with the blissful co-write she did in Nashville – with “a hairy biker” songwriter – a song they wrote about her own childhood and dedicated to her young daughter. “The Girl I Used To Be”. A real tear jerker.
She takes us on a roller coaster ride of many emotions in her songs, and the sensitive and sincere way she delivers them. A singer’s job is to serve the song. She really, really, really does that. She wears her heart on her sleeve on the new album and very much did so last night.
I believe many women in her audiences connect with her because they or their friends, have been through what she has been through relationship-wise, and can therefore totally identify with the emotions and the messages in her songs. Here are a few comments made by punters who were at last night’s gig, posted today on social media:
“Wow Imelda. You are a bundle of all sorts of emotion…living, singing, feeling, life, heart n soul on your sleeve. You rocked it last night in Leicester and I loved every minute…bless you xx”. And another one: “Amazing gig in Leicester last night…she is one fantastic human. An exceptional talent.” One more: “What a brilliant show in Leicester last night. What a voice and such emotion in her songs The band were amazing.”
So any minor sound issues didn’t seem to affect many at all. The place seemingly adored Ms May.
After the gorgeous moment when she strips it all back to how a song is born; just the voice and the acoustic guitar, the rest of the boys in the band trot back on and they rock into the third section of the show, in fifth gear now, the more rockin; rambunctious and bloody loud bit.
The rockabilly stuff comes out now, including her first hit single, “Johnny Got A Boom Boom” and the one that got them up and dancing in the aisles, “Mayhem”. She told the crowd to fill up the space in front of her and to ignore the security. Kim and Andy the security chaps are soon out-numbered. “Do what you want to do,” she says, defiantly. They did too. The entire place was dancing, way up in the God’s, on the balconies, at the seats and all the aisles.
She talked about a recent night where she sunk a bit too much wine and went on-line to do some shopping at the same time, and all the little surprises she got in the next few days, when packages arrived that she had no idea she had ordered – or what was in them! She picked up a glass of red wine from the drum riser, took a wee sip, pulled a face and told her lead guitarist he could have it as it tasted horrible! Looking into the wings and asking one of her crew if they would kindly go into her dressing room and retrieve a glass of the decent stuff for her!
Lead guitarist takes the inferior plonk, takes a sip and puts it down. Roadie duly hands him the good stuff, he takes a big sip of that while Imelda’s back is turned, and then hands her the glass. The band laughing heartily.
Her banter with the audience is very pleasant and sincere. She talks about one particular night when she got upset and cried, and caught sight of her face in the mirror, and the streaks of mascara down her face, and decided it looked like black tears, which prompted her song of that title. A wonderfully sad and heartfelt ballad in a Patsy Cline style. I have read reviews of previous albums of Imelda’s, where the critic has said she can belt out a great tune but is weaker on the ballads. To that, after tonight and seeing her in August this year, I say: “Bollocks”. Nuff said.
I mentioned this earlier; but I feel the need to make a big point about her amazing control. She sings from her diaphragm and not her throat. She has the utmost control vocally and will probably never lose her voice from singing too much. Her power and control are a masterclass. The gravel, the grit and very much; the sheer soul that drips from that smoky, Irish voice means she is like a Supercar compared to most modern day female singers out there who are a Ford Mondeo, in comparison.
The young R&B and pop stars go OTT with their vocal acrobatics and vocal runs, and all try to be Beyonce. Not our Imelda. She teases with what she is capable of, but when she does let rip with a run, shivers down the spine time. Like a Supercar, her engine purrs, it roars when it needs to as she shoves it up a few gears. Then it zooms off and no one can catch it. Super sleek and a real head turner. As I said earlier; a great singer serves the song – Imelda May is most definitely, a great singer.
I was thinking of one of my favourite ever soul singers from these shores, Lulu. Yes, really. Imelda’s vocal quality and that soul thang, could well have been Lulu if she had ever had the quality of the songs that Ms. May has. Thoughts of Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline and Aretha sprang to mind tonight, too. Ms. May is in that class.
Some of her innate runs are other worldly. Hairs stand up on end, shivers up and down the spine. She never overdoes it, nothing over cooked. Gives you a tease of what she is capable of and leaves you gagging for more.
The floodlights across the top of the stage come on and douse the auditorium in bright light. “Now you know how we feel,” she quips. Imelda talks about the difference between choosing love and hate, love and fear. Asking us all to turn to the person next to us, and shake their hand and say hello. Encouraging people to stay connected and to be there for each other.
Various fans flock up to the stage to shake Imelda’s hand at this point, and one woman comes from the back of the hall to hold on to the star’s hand and chat in her ear, and it seemed like she was never gonna let go of that firm grip. Imelda kept her cool and smiled, and then told us the lady was from a children’s charity.
She talks emotionally about being in Paris with her mates U2, the day of the Bataclan massacre in November 2015, and how two of her record label colleagues who became her friends, were killed and her guitarist Ollie’s friend who was selling tee shirts at that concert, had also died.
How Bono held a lunch in Dublin for every one of his band, crew and friends who were there, including Imelda, soon after that horrific day, “because we were all rattled”, and at that private lunch how he asked a Priest friend to say Grace. But the Priest chose instead to read out a poem, and how that poem said there were only two emotions we feel. Love and Fear. That all other emotions come from those two. Then she tells us, “I choose love”, and sings the song of that name, or maybe it is called “Love and Fear.” Her fans will know. Apologies if I got it wrong.
She was the youngest of six kids. Clabby her surname. A brother died at birth. Her Mother was 48 when Imelda” the surprise,” came along. Mum was a seamstress and used to love to sing at work. Imelda is a songstress and loves to sing at work too!
Her Dad was a dance teacher, painter and decorator and played the harmonica. The family lived in Dublin. She sobbed as a young girl when a boy broke her heart, and on the way to her gig that night, her Daddy told her: “Good, you’ll sing the blues better tonight then”.
There were no bad songs tonight. There were many good ones of the 20 we got. Some that stood out for me included “Call Me”, “Human”, “Should’ve Been You”, “Big Bad Handsome Man” “The Girl I Used To Be” and the brilliant “Inside Out”. The previously mentioned “Mayhem” and “Johnny’s Got a Boom Boom” were fab too. Nice job on The Animals’ cover, “I’m Crying”. An unexpected bonus was the very last song of the night, her cover of the Undertones classic “Teenage Kicks”, which she combined with her own song, “Game Changer”.
That reminded me of another gig in that same city of Leicester, back in the late 70s, that I was covering. First night of a sold out UK tour for that very band, The Undertones, when that single was all over the radio. They went on stage at Leicester University and belted out a few songs, then did the single, and in the very first few bars, the PA blew up and that was the end of the night. The band really were gutted and sat with heads in hands in the dressing room, when I went in to see them.
She unusually didn’t leave the stage to come back on to do an encore. She came to the front of the stage towards the end of the set and grabbed a Bodhran drum, and beat that with the beater thing, and sang. I recall seeing fellow Irish natives The Chieftains at this same venue several decades ago with that drum, and they like Imelda, left a mighty impression on me.
To sum it all up; Imelda May is a star. She burns bright. She stockpiles energy, soul, passion, skill, control, a caring spirit and her natural rapport and connection with the audience. She is surely destined to see the word “legendary” stuck in front of her name, as a singer and an artist, in years to come. Unlike many who get branded with that overused word, she will have earned it, if she keeps on the way she is going….
STOP PRESS: Ultra-talented Brighton lass, London-based soul, jazz, R&B singer songwriter Andreya Triana opened for Imelda with just six songs. A lone guitarist – Nathaniel Keen – sat behind her as company (great player too). She played ukulele and electric guitar, and used loops.
Her voice was absolutely world class – in the same league and ball park as the likes of Lianne La Havas, Jill Scott, Lauren Hill, Caron Wheeler and Erykah Badu – and with talent like Andreya has, as a singer and as a songwriter, she really should be headlining venues as big as this or even bigger.
Bathed in red light for her set, her frizzy Afro-ish hair back lit, it looked like she was on fire. Talent wise she sure was.
Her song “Gold” got a big reaction, “A Town Called Obsolete” was strong, but the killer cut has got to be “That’s Alright With Me”, as a piece of songwriting craft and for her incredible vocals.
Her short but sweet set punched well above its weight for a support act, and she ended the spot with a cover of The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”. Very, very, very nice job.
A truly outstanding artist who deserves huge success, and to have their name in lights as the main act. Arenas beckon, if there’s justice. Check her out, you’ll be thankful you did.
Review & Photos: Simon Redley
Imelda May and guitarist sat on front of stage. iPhone photo: Keith Buck