Imelda May, Royal Albert Hall, London
“He’s a big bad boy,” lustily croons six-months pregnant Imelda May on “Johnny’s Got a Boom Boom”, the saucy rockabilly song that catapulted the singer to instant fame.
“There’s a little bit more of me tonight,” jokes May, draped in a figure-hugging, hot-pink dress with grey leopard-skin prints. However, her impending rockabilly baby doesn’t hinder the Dubliner’s performance one iota. She simply tears through 28 tracks, a heady blend of raunchy, thunderous rock’n’roll (“Psycho”, “Mayhem” and “Inside Out”) and louche torch songs (“Kentish Town Waltz” and “Knock 123”), without breaking sweat. The 36-year-old is a force of nature.
The sassy retro singer, with the blonde Pepe Le Pew-style curl in her mahogany hair, was performing in relative obscurity until her career-changing turn in 2008 on Later with… Jools Holland – the (only?) home for big music breaks on British TV. Since then May’s had two mega-selling albums – Love Tattoo (2009) and Mayhem (2010) and her record company, Decca, are so pleased with her that the label’s boss comes on stage to present her with a quadruple-platinum disc. It’s sweet, but frankly it disrupts the raucous rock’n’roll.
She promised it was going “to go mental” and it politely does as the Albert Hall crowd rise to their feet for “Mayhem”, her naughty-boy anthem. In fact, there’s more than a little bit of Amy Winehouse’s insouciance in May’s lyrics, which deal in sauciness (“I love your wits, and all your wobbly bits” on “On Inside Out”), stalkers, obsession and waywardness (“Do you remember we traipsed around/ From pub to pound shop through Kentish Town” on the gorgeous ballad “Kentish Town Waltz”, a highlight tonight).
May is a born performer whose influences are obvious - Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and Gene Vincent - but her secret weapon is her self-effacing husband, the guitarist Darrel Higham. His Duane-Eddy-like twanging propels this breathless experience, aided and abetted by Al Gare’s habitually menacing upright bass, Dave Priseman’s plaintive trumpet and Steve Rushton’s precise drumming. And May herself is a mean tambourine and bodhrán player. Together, they’re the most potent of skiffle/rock’n’roll bands. The only slight concern is how long can they last? Will their shtick fizzle out? Well, you get the impression they’d be content playing in an air-raid shelter, anywhere in fact. And in the dynamite May they have a performer who can mix sultry, exquisite ballads like “Knock 123” with flat out rock’n’roll, memorably completing this exhausting set with Elvis’s “My Baby Left Me”. Rockin’, baby.
Tear it up
Go tell devil
Kentish Town waltz
Proud & humble
All for you
Ghost of love
Meet you at the moon
Let me out
Watcha gonna do
Baby, I love you
My baby left me
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