Imelda May has been in the slipstream of a comet this last year. The once-upon-a-time bodhran-beatin queen of The Liberties has seen her reputation blossom gradually since her boisterous debut ‘No Turning Back’ in 2003. But between a few well-placed performances and one emotional juggernaut of an album, 2017 has been the year that’s seen her rise from genre dominator to household name. A more sombre, sophisticated incarnation of the woman who once electrified the rockabilly revival, May’s newfound zeitgeist has led her to a headline slot at the esteemed Royal Albert Hall. With her former firebrand persona bubbling just below an air of royalty, this wasn’t a night to be missed.
Opting to kick-off smooth rather than sizzling, May opened with the gentle ‘Call Me’, sat Dolly Parton style on an amp. A quiet and confessional start, you’d be forgiven for thinking May had doused her former fire for good. But you’d be wrong. Gospel-tinged second number ‘When It’s My Time’, complete with southern tabernacle backing vocalists and an organist let fully off the chain, saw May burst like a phoenix drenched in oil into full blown arena mode, with soaring cries and vocal extravagance a-plenty. Changed she may be, but Imelda May still belts like no one else.
For the next hour May rolled out a veritable aural feast, mostly chosen from latest album ‘Life Love Flesh Blood’ that’s netted more than a few album of the year nods these past weeks. The Billie Holliday-esque ‘Sixth Sense’, the titanic single ‘Black Tears’ and the impassioned ‘Love and Fear’ all earned prominent spots. So comfortable on stage that she might have been born there, May introduced each track with the typical Celtic wit you’d expect from a proud daughter of Dublin, and was never afraid to let the more serious subject matters get in the way of a good one-liner. Furthermore, cementing her reputation as one of the most personable artists on the circuit, May brought the first of many guests on stage in the form of Damien Dempsey, to duet on his single ‘Big Big Love’.
The show’s mid-point saw May abandon the stage entirely, and set up shop in the middle of the stalls for an acoustic interlude. An acapella, hymn-like rendition of U2’s ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ set ever hair on every neck quivering, where they stayed for a particularly jazzy rendition of ‘Molly Malone’ and old favourite ‘Inside Out’.
After one final acoustic ode in the form of recent single ‘The Girl I Used To Be’, May headed back on stage for the most vicious track of the evening, ‘The Longing’. Strutting about the stage, screeching like a young Nick Cave and even opting for a clamouring, guitar-style vocal solo, it’s a side to May’s song writing that rarely emerges and we can only hope will come out of its shell in the future.
Never one to shy away from giving the people what they want, May’s final straight saw a rendition of her old hit ‘Mayhem’ that went a long way to coaxing the last bastions of the seated to their feet. Then, as if they needed any more encouragement, May roped none other than Bob Geldof and Ronnie Wood into proceedings (with typical off-handedness, calling the pair simply ‘me friends’). Dragged-out, roof-raising and jammed-into-oblivion renditions of blues standards ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’’ and ‘I’m Crying’ came next, with more pedal-to-the-floor razor-edged energy than you’re likely to see at the Albert Hall for many a concert to come. May’s equally-bluesified original ‘Johnny Got A Boom Boom’ wrapped the evening, before a quickfire hip-shaking encore of ‘Game Changer’ and The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. If you weren’t thoroughly knackered by the end of it all, you hadn’t been paying attention.
May’s Albert Hall extravaganza played out like a blossoming flower. From that first track curled up, fraught and fragile, to the whiskey-swilling blues finale that’d knock the socks off of Robert Johnson himself, it was an unashamed declaration. The message was clear. Imelda May can stand alongside the best of them, and now she’s here she’s sure not moving.