Thursday, 25 May 2017

Imelda May - Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Monday 22nd May 2017

Plush, slick and polished were not vocabulary that came to mind when Imelda May played the Robin 2 in Bilston around a decade ago. Of course prior to that there were the pub gigs in the area, although in subsequent years success and recognition headed her way as the mainstream were given a glimpse into the world of rockabilly. However artists evolve for a multitude of reasons, yet there is an inevitability that the stark comparisons are going to be made with Imelda May circa 2017 and her past.

The lavish surroundings of the Birmingham’s Symphony Hall hosted Imelda on this latest excursion to the Second City on a date that will forever be a sad mark on the nation’s live music scene. Backed by a seven piece touring band, Imelda turned the focus on her new album, which along with the visual transformation is core to this transitional re-invention. LIFE LOVE FLESH BLOOD has attracted a diverse bunch of labels from Americana to alternative, but firmly resides in the adult contemporary camp awash with powerhouse vocals and stirring melodies. These absolutely contributed to the tone of the show which featured an entire airing of the new record from the mellow strains of the opening number ‘Call Me’ to the far rockier encore closer ‘Game Changer’.

Essentially like any fresh out the package touring record, the audience mood often lapsed into a passive state, with the anthemic ‘Should’ve Been You’ and the instantly connective ‘Wild Woman’ being the major lifting points as live rousers amongst the new songs. This certainly doesn’t undermine the quality of outstanding tunes such as ‘Human’, ‘Black Tears’ and ‘Leaving Me Lonely’. These and many others were either eased or belted out with the ultimate emotion, making this show perhaps heavily focussed on the focal point of the vocalist rather than the entity of the on-stage ensemble.

There was certainly no lack of panache or seasoned class in the guitar, horn, key and rhythm compartments even though they generally remained in a pre-ordained role of providing the oxygen to Imelda’s vocals. On the solitary occasion where she did strip the sound down, long term band mate Oliver Darling joined her for an acoustic rendition of ‘The Girl I Used To Be’ in the slot that heralded the conclusion of the pre-encore show. This was introduced as a song looking back at her Irish upbringing. It would however be an understandable misinterpretation if thoughts turned to aligning it with the recent transition as well.

On the topic of the older material, there was an enhanced buzz around the venue when ‘Big Bad Handsome May’ punctuated a raft of new songs in the early stages. Likewise as the gig reached a crescendo, ‘Mayhem’ and ‘Johnny Got a Boom Boom’ ensured that remaining seated was not an option.

While the new album is firmly packed with the writing of Imelda May conveying deep and emotional feelings, ranging from the proverbial ‘Sixth Sense’ to the primal ‘Love and Fear’, there was still room for the odd cover. A version of The Animals’ ‘I’m Crying’ was a central part of the pre-encore finale, while it was sixties bubble gum pop all round when the extras began with an uplifting rendition of ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’, initially made famous by The Shangri-Las.

Imelda proved every inch the show performer as she prowled the Symphony Hall stage. The new material forms a gutsy bunch of songs that are showing signs of extra maturing in listening mode away from the live arena. It can sometimes be difficult making the ultimate connection in a largish hall, but Imelda worked her socks off all show to make a difference. Her chat was kept to a general minimum, with a now in hindsight more than poignant re-collection of industry colleagues she lost in the Bataclan tragedy. On a local note, she did acknowledge members of the Birmingham band the Toy Hearts in the audience who incidentally supported Imelda in that Bilston gig all those years ago.

Imelda May is coming across as an artist purposefully driven by instinct and certainly not afraid to branch out. Fans will definitely be picked up in new spheres on the route of her current onward projection, primed by exposure to an artist who is comfortably at ease with the output of a new direction. There will no doubt be barriers and further hurdles to conquer, but few left the Symphony Hall with any reason to not rejoice in just witnessing an artist on top form.

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