Imelda May @ Shepherds Bush Empire

“Imelda had a scan yesterday, which revealed she has a slipped disc.  If it was up to me, she wouldn’t be playing tonight, but she’ll probably do the show of her life, so enjoy.”

To have your stage manager come on and apologise for the show in advance is hardly the most auspicious start to any gig.  But in the case of Imelda May, it only served to show that she is both a natural and a professional.  While the opening numbers had a certain grimace to them, that soon gave way to gratitude and a lively performance.

The show first clicked three or four songs in, when the band covered the John Lennon classic Oh, Darling.  Last time, I said Imelda’s cover of Patsy Cline’s Walking after Midnight was pedestrian (and I’m still proud of the pun), but this new direction works much better.  Indeed, the blues play a much bigger part in Imelda’s canon now, injecting greater passion into the performance.

Far be it for me to insinuate that the band can’t write their own songs, however.  The new material sounds as good, if not better than the last album.  Psycho seems to have been tinkered with, to give it a jazzier sound, and I still have trouble disbelieving It’s All For You.  The new album, just around the corner, looks like it could be a good one.

It’s a short but tight set, culminating in a hurried Johnny’s Got a Boom Boom.  There’s plenty for the audience to enjoy, but it doesn’t exactly bristle, and you start to wonder whether there will be an encore, given the back injury.  But there certainly is, and for near-enough the first time, the show becomes not just another performance, but a real thrill.  Playing three covers – Tainted Love, an unidentified Elvis one, and the blues standard Rollin’ and Tumblin’ most recently found on Bob Dylan’s Modern Times LP – the band cut loose and take their turn at solos while Imelda dances and shrieks away. 

Onwards and Upwards

That last time I saw Imelda, about this time last year, she was playing to about two hundred people in a Northern social club, all in spite of an appearance on the Jools Holland show and a rigorous touring schedule.  In the mean time, she has played with Jeff Beck (watched by Ronnie Wood and Jimmy Page), supported rock ‘n’ roll legend Chuck Berry and been in demand from America’s Tonight Show.  Now she’s playing to thousands at a trendy venue in London.  That’s some rise.

And it’s easy enough to see why that rise has been so rapid.  The British sense of humour naturally draws them to novel acts, and Imelda is a sublime practitioner of fifties-era rockabilly.  She’s also backed by one of the best live bands in the business, from the wild-eyed but wonderful drummer Steve Rushton, the virtuoso trumpeter Dave Priseman and double bassist Al Gare.  Special mention also to her husband and guitarist Darrel Higham, who inhabits the very side of the stage, but fully deserves to be called a ‘rockabilly god.’

Whether Imelda’s sense of fun is enough for a breakthrough, only time will tell.  The model, as for all ‘retro’ acts these days, is Amy Winehouse.  Having achieved moderate success with a new trend – Frank – the public only really took to her with Back to Black.  If there’s one thing that trumps fun, it’s sentimentality, and the audiences much prefer to feel they’ve discovered something personal, than have an act slave away at promoting a brand they’ve been working on for years.  That, however, is probably the only thing between Imelda May and stardom.  Let’s hope it doesn’t stop here.

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