Wanda Jackson to see Imelda’s spiritual grandma though).
Before we get to Ms May there’s just time for local Bluegrass heroes/heroines The Toy Hearts (all the way from the United States of Kings Heath) to win over a few more fans with their reliably top notch set of covers and original material. Formed around two sisters and their dear old dad they’ve managed to successfully take their act back over the US in ‘a coals to Newcastle’ stylee which tells you something about how good they are. On top of a whistle stop tour through their previous albums we got to hear something from the new one ‘Femme Fatale’, which they were keen to point out was their title before Britney decided to nab it too, and a spirited cover of the Elvis Sun period classic ‘When It Rains It Really Pours’.
On to the main event then, the irrepressible force of nature that is Imelda Mary Clabby...now better known of course as Imelda May to her adoring public. An overnight success, after performing for 20 odd years in bars and clubs that is, May’s clearly loving the much deserved attention. There’s a raw, bullshit free honesty to the performer and, seemingly, the person. You get the real sense that she’d be just as happy playing down her local as she would in front of 20,000 people and it’s a performance that’s clearly been shaped in childhood front rooms and family parties...where it’s done for the sheer joy of it all...not as part of any act. That's what really gives her the edge.
Without giving a blow by blow account of the set (do you know how hard it is to write a setlist in the dark with a pint of cider in one hand...I nearly ruined my brothel creepers) several highlights really stood out, summing up the essential May. During ‘Proud and Humble’, written “when I was doing da hoovering” Imelda informed us in that lush accent of hers, she let the mic drop down away from her mouth and carried on singing, seemingly as loud and clear as before. That’s a neat trick to pull off in a small venue but it’s a brave soul that tries in a big old hall. It worked though. Powerful thing that voice of hers. In the same song, she led the crowd in a call and response section. Again some performers fall on their face with this stuff but it’s testament to the love that she inspires in her fans that big hairy blokes were happy sing along. Then, during ‘Mayhem’ I think it was, she ditched the mic altogether and went off to dance next to her husband (also her guitarist, Darrel Higham). Jigging away up there it seemed like she hadn’t a care in the world, doing that dance that they did in the 50’s where they wave their arms around and hold their nose like they’re about to dive underwater...I want to say the ‘Mashed Potato’ but I could just be making shit up now. It was a gloriously unselfconscious moment and the look on her face said it all. She’s having a ball. So were we.
There was a cover or two, including Howling Wolf’s ‘Poor Boy’, acknowledged tonight as one of her inspirations and some rousing renditions of her biggest numbers to date, ‘Inside Out’, ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’ and ‘Johnny Got a Boom Boom’. Respect due to Al, the double bass player, on the last of these tracks. I’ve been watching this guy since he played in King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys and he’s turned into one of the greatest double bass players ever. Standing on the edge of the stage, plucking away like billy-o, he made it seem like the coolest instrument in the world.
It wasn’t all rock n’ holler though. Imelda’s softer side came through on ‘Kentish Town’, dedicated to a couple who’d got engaged to the song, proving that she can do the sweeter, more understated stuff as well as belting it out. A crowd pleasing encore included a remix of ‘Inside Out’ and a throat ripping rendition of 'Tainted Love' before she left us with a bit of Elvis’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’. Alright? That’s an understatement. Imelda-mazing.