On the last date of a too-brief American tour, Irish siren Imelda May revealed to an eager Seattle audience just how and why she’s become an international star in two short years, demonstrating what top-tier, old-school showmanship looks and sounds like. No gimmicks, no attitude, no reinvention of the wheel… just a singer on the very top of her game, belting out rockabilly and blues as if her life depended on it.
After a superb warm up by the Emerald City’s fabulous Roy Kay Trio, May and her quartet began an 85-minute feast with “Pulling the Rug” from her new album, Mayhem, and segued into the title track of her first disc, “Love Tattoo”. Attired in a stunning black-and-yellow-striped affair that she dubbed her “bumblebee dress”, the singer then flashed her blues bona fides with unbelievably rollicking covers of “Poor Boy” and “Train Kept a’ Rollin'”. Indeed, despite the warm smile on May’s face, this was serious business; hardly a country-fair oldies homage, May & Co. sweat and breathe the ’50s and early ’60s — in their own stylish, relevant way — as if Howlin’ Wolf and Johnny Burnette had never left the charts.
The utterly charming, yet subtly tough singer shimmied, shook and swam across the stage during the no-filler set as if she’s been doing it all her life, which she has. Witnessing May’s delivery of a gem such as the slinky “Big Bad Handsome Man”, one became very aware of what videos or albums can’t quite capture: remarkable confidence equaled by a down-to-earth quality that can’t be faked. She’s an audience’s delight and a photographer’s dream, but May’s allure is never suggestive… she’s simply a graceful, golden-voiced girl next door who can probably lick her weight in wildcats.
“Sneaky Freak”, “Mayhem”, “Psycho”, an accelerated, pedal-to-the-floor rendition of “Inside Out”, a great call-and-response sing-along of “Proud and Humble” showed May’s dizzying enthusiasm and energy was as contagious as a summer flu; even the walls of the historic theater seemed to sweat.
May’s band of British hotshots could pursue a very successful career without anyone at the microphone, but they serve her well as sidemen; perfectly, even. Husband Darrel Higham (a major player in the rockabilly scene across the pond) brought his big Gretsch and matinee-idol mug into the spotlight for tasty solos, and then would retreat to the shadows. Dave Priseman drew thunderous applause every time he took to his trumpet; like Higham, the utility infielder often would take a few steps back while playing guitar or percussion. Equipped with a bit more kit than customary for a roots/”retro” drummer, Steve Rushton tirelessly swatted and splashed away directly behind his bandleader, seemingly having the time of his life.
Poker-faced, pinstriped Al Gare proved to be the deck’s joker, shifting his facial expression and posture only when he changed from stand-up to Fender bass halfway through the set. Gare then became positively animated, adopting a Billy Zoom-like stance a bit closer to the stage. The quiet comedian was afforded the biggest applause of the night during May’s instant classic, “Johnny Got a Boom-Boom”, bringing the big bass right to the lip of the stage and furiously plucking away as the crowd went into orbit.
The only downside to such a high-octane show was a relative lack of the slow, torchy numbers that May’s voice also excels at. It’s just as well, for her beautiful composition, “Kentish Town Waltz”, turned into a near-disaster.
A couple of minutes after pointing out the song’s reference to her courtship with Higham, May seemed to pause and for good reason. Sadly, the theater was outrageously loud during the whisper-soft ballad. Performers have walked off stage for lesser offenses, but May has spent too many years singing in Dublin pubs to react so rashly. After a verbal and telepathic exchange with Gare, the singer settled on delivering a polite bitch slap to those towards the bar.
“I thought you came to hear a show?” she asked, peering at the back of the room. “For those who came to listen, I hope you’re having a good time.” Cheers naturally erupted; the band launched into the raucous, jazzy “Smokers Song”, and all was forgotten.
After “Boom Boom”, May returned to the stage to serve dessert. First, a bouncy cover of “Tainted Love” that has long been a gig tradition; with the announcement of “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the building”, the band proceeded to craft fitting interpretations of “My Baby Left Me” and “That’s Alright Mama”.
May and the band then bid farewell to Neptune Theater, and to the US, with an arm-in-arm bow as the audience clamored for more.
It would be safe to say that America in general would like to see and hear more of Imelda May… yes, she’s performed at the Grammys, played some gigs here with Jeff Beck, done a couple of small tours. That’s just dipping a toe in the water. Much of the country has embraced roots music once again, and it’s ripe for this Irishwoman’s brand of timeless music — performed on a wild, city-to-city caravan tour of grand old theaters.
After a long rest, that is.