Right – so I am going to get this part out of the way first – Imelda May’s new look. Everything we read about her these days comments on her recent change; the fact that she’s lost the quiff and the rockabilly style. And really it goes against the grain for me to comment on a female performer in terms of her appearance but I find that I can’t ignore it. This girl is HOT! Breathtakingly so. And she’s my age! Life is unfair. She walked onto the stage in a black cocktail dress and killer heels with the best pins in the business and it was impossible not to be struck by how incredible she looks. And then she began to sing and for the next hour and forty minutes she commanded the stage with a performance that ranged from raw and vulnerable to rebellious and sexy.
The new album Life Love Flesh Blood is desperately raw, dealing as it does with the aftermath of her marriage break-up. Some of the songs expose so much that they border on painful to listen to, none more so than her opening song tonight, the tender Call Me. It was a beautifully understated performance for which she sat down, back-lit in blue. Her second song she dedicated to a fan in the audience who’d suffered an illness and fittingly she sang the gospel inspired When It’s My Time. Beginning with just her voice and the Hammond organ with the rest of the band in darkness, the stage was then thrown into light, the full band struck up and gospel strains blended with bluesy guitar solos. The lighting for this show was a spectacle and the regal gold and purple hues made this number as beautiful as a Baz Luhrmann movie.
In her distinctive Dublin burr she then saluted Belfast and told us that as thankful as she was for all the many “shit holes” she’d played here over the years, she was thrilled to be playing such a beautiful venue as is The Waterfront Hall. She alluded to the city’s credentials as one of the “punk capitals of the world” and despite her elegant new image and her rockabilly history, I have no doubt that there is punk ingrained in Imelda May and that was apparent throughout tonight’s show. The next song was written when she’d had enough of being called someone’s “darling or sweetheart or angel or queen” and just wanted to be someone’s Human. She admits though, to still being susceptible to the charms of a wrong’un; “you know that fella you try not to go near, dear god you try – and eventually you have to give in?” Sixth Sense, that tale of the one she just can’t resist sounds much closer to her country-rockabilly inclinations with its double bass and twanging guitars.
The stage was suddenly flooded with red and purple in keeping with the huge, sultry song that is Big Bad Handsome Man. Accompanied by sexy trumpet she stalked around the stage like a siren. Next was another new song, Bad Habit, decrying that dreadful disorder Buyer’s Remorse, resulting from wine-fuelled online shopping.
Just as that song was ending something odd occurred! The man next to me was on his knees scrabbling under the seat in front for what transpired to be his wife’s umbrella. She’d left moments earlier, I’d assumed she’d planned to return – but the look of wrath on her husband’s face told a different tale. As disgruntled as a latter-day Victor Meldrew (if that reference isn’t too outdated) he pushed past me muttering, “well it’s certainly nothing like her albums”. For whatever reason, I felt obliged to stammer almost apologetically, “but this is her new album, she’ll get onto her older stuff”, but he wasn’t to be deterred. Perhaps the new Imelda is too raunchy for them, perhaps too it’s a good thing that they didn’t stay, as the rest of the set was in fact made up of mostly new material – and anyway, who needs that kind of negative energy?
A bit of levity ensued when Imelda asked us to shake hands with and introduce ourselves to those behind and in front of us so we wouldn’t be surrounded by strangers. Her more poignant intention became clear though when she commented on the recent Manchester Arena bombing and said, “you’re all here and I want you to know each other”. Recalling too the Bataclan shooting in Paris in which she lost two friends, she commended her fans for coming out and continuing to live their lives. Quoting a pastor who’d spoken at a dinner she’d attended days after the Paris incident she said, “There are only two emotions, not love and hate, but love and fear”. The emotive words led her to write the chorus of Love and Fear; “good people do bad things, bad people do good things, but if the choice is between love and fear, I choose love”. The effect was very stirring at the distance of less than a week since the dreadful tragedy.
Seven more tracks from the new album followed in succession, including the seductive How Bad Can a Good Girl Be with its Spanish guitars, the more desolate Levitate and the strange, almost vaudevillian sounding Flesh and Blood. Black Tears was inspired by May catching sight of her own mascara stained face in a mirror, and its melody seems vaguely familiar, redolent of a KD Lang track perhaps. The latest single from the new album, Should’ve Been You, had the first three rows of fans – all of whom seemed to be women – up on their feet while others were out dancing in the aisles. If you’ve seen the accompanying video you’ll know it features an endless parade of real life women from all walks of life miming the lyrics intended to empower women – it’s something of a call to action. But it’s not a man hating song so it was gratifying to see the (brave) lone man jiving with his missus right in the front row.
The Longing was introduced candidly as a song about lust. The lyrics and the baying delivery are unapologetically sexy and overt and the rhythmic drum beat created a primitive effect. At times so touchingly vulnerable in her performance, Imelda May is no wallflower and in this song, she possessed the stage with attitude akin to Siouxie Sioux and her ilk. Her appeal though lies in the fact that you can believe all of it’s true. As she head-banged her way through a riotous version of The Animals’ I’m Crying, you believe that that punk Imelda is as authentic as the sensitive balladeer.
Though the new album dominated the set, she couldn’t let fans go home without another few firm favourites. Wild Women and Mayhem got the crowd whooping and dancing before Imelda took up her bodhran and wowed us with the classic Johnny Got A Boom Boom. Support act Jack Lukeman then returned to the stage for a pretty decent duet of U2’s whopper, All I Want is You. The gruff resonance of his voice made hers all the more transcendent and with the two of them in near darkness save a single white spotlight, the picture was reminiscent of the Rattle and Hum album cover. Just when you think it is going to be huge anthems all the way, Imelda launched into a nostalgic tune called The Girl I Used to Be accompanied only by guitarist Oliver Darling. A retrospective of her childhood with lyrics like, “Climbing up Bray Head, her lips were warmed with pots of tea, chips and buttered bread”, it’s clear that even though her face is splattered across London tube stations and she is an international phenomenon, Imelda May is still a Dub through and through.
Foot stomping and wild cheering brought her back to the stage for an encore of three songs; the Shadow Morton track, I Remember Walking in the Sand which she previously recorded with Jeff Beck, new album track Game Changer for which she demanded we all get on our feet, and a segue into Northern Ireland’s alternative national anthem, Teenage Kicks (there’s that punk influence again!).
With her displays of vocal acrobatics tonight, it’s clear that Imelda May could hold her own with the greatest female singers of her time. As stellar as her career is right now, she still seems like a girl you could have a pint and a yarn with; her warmth and her love for her fans are unmistakable. I’m sorry for the man and his wife who left early – they missed one hell of a show!