Joan Armatrading’s career has been quite remarkable when you think about it. Not really a household name nor tabloid fodder, her strength lies in quiet consistency and a humble, almost unassuming worldview. Her music, an eclectic mix of pop, rock, folk and blues, is delivered with the stance of a singer/songwriter who has gently shifted gears throughout her 40-year career. Sometimes she has leaned on the poppier side of things, sometimes she’s more introspective and sometimes it’s all about the blues. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of letting it rip, as her most recent albums have proved. But despite her chosen style and colouring at any given time, Armatrading’s unique voice and artistry runs lika a pure thread through them all.
Her latest albums, Lovers Speak (2003), Into the Blues (2007) and This Charming Life (2010), have been quite a feat, showing maturity and grace not always present in artists that manage to sustain a career for that long. This fact is hammered in on this very fine live set, recorded at the Royal Albert Hall, while she was touring the aforementioned This Charming Life backed by bassist John Giblin, drummer and saxophonist Gary Foote, and keyboardist Spencer Cozens. All the six-string action is handled by Armatrading herself.
The concert is spread over two CDs (a single edition is also available, as well as a CD/DVD combo), starting off with the robust title track from 1977’s Show Some Emotion. The first half of the set relies on more recent material. We get “Something’s Gotta Blow”, “A Woman In Love” and “Into the Blues” from Into the Blues and “Two Tears”, “Promises”, “Cry” and “Love Love Love” from This Charming Life. Newcomers to Armatrading are likely to be surprised by the sheer force of the delivery here and the range of the compositions, veering from husky ballads to all out rockers. Into The Blues, for instance, has been wrongly presented in most reviews as some kind of a purist blues album, which it isn’t. Armatrading on the other hand makes use of the form as a palette for her own, unique songwriting, resulting in bluesy songs like the powerful “Something’s Gotta Blow”. It lives up to its title, giving way to a howling and expressive guitar workouts by Armatrading. Her playing is outstanding throughout the album; forceful yet emotional. Simply put, she rocks.
But the blues-inspired offerings here are easily trumped by the material from the excellent This Charming Life. There’s an urgency and gusto to the performances that really astound. Take “Two Tears” and “Cry”, for example, with their naked, lovelorn lyrics. Armatrading’s singing here is emotional, heartfelt, graceful … uplifting really.
The second CD introduces somewhat better-known material. “Call Me Names” from the The Key gets an outing and “Willow”, one of her better known tracks, is played as we near the end. And, unsurprisingly, “Drop The Pilot”, the closest she’s ever gotten to having a worldwide hit. All in all, this is a very fine document of a great artist in full bloom – 40 years into her career. Remarkable, really.