July 26, 2011
Stevenson, MD USA
Review by Craig Hunter Ross
Photos by Craig Hunter Ross
As cars dropped off passengers, before beginning the search for places to park on the corner of 9th and V Street in Northwest Washington D.C., the scene was reminiscent of what some would consider a bygone era. The sidewalk in front of the 9:30 Club could have been mistaken for a scene straight out of the movie American Graffiti; or maybe an old photo taken outside the Sun Recording Studios come to life. There was no shortage of pompadours, bright red lipstick and the occasional set of pork chop sideburns. Though the marquee featured rockabilly superstar Wanda Jackson in bold letters, it was the much smaller name underneath, Imelda May, who would prove to be the most intriguing.
When the nostalgia-driven crowd filled the area in front of the stage, they were greeted by an overwhelming floor to ceiling banner featuring an image of the vivacious May. It was a bold statement by the upstart singer. Soon enough, she'd be put to the ultimate test by the crowd - acceptance. Did this true Irish born performer have the voice, and the charisma, to match the larger-than-life stage reminder unfurled before the audience's eyes? The test was about to begin. Fortunately, a stellar backing band would pave the way. With Imelda's husband Darrel Higham on lead guitar, other members of this tight-knit group included Steve Rushton, drums; Dave Priseman playing everything from guitar to trumpet, and Al Gare on bass. They would provide more than ample support for May, as she proceeded to prove her rockabilly worthiness, to the assembled retro crowd gathered before her.
The set opened with the Dublin-born singer introducing herself with "Pulling the Rug", her hit from the chart-topping 2010 release, Mayhem. Anyone caught unaware of Imelda's presence before they walked in, definitely knew she was in the house now. The 37-year old vocalist further got everyone's attention with the proceeding tune, "Love Tattoo". Afterwards, she expressed her appreciation to those gathered for "not being away on summer holiday and being here." The contrast from powerful singer, to soft-spoken Irish lass with accent to match, took many in the crowd by surprise.
Any pretense there might be a drop in stage intensity quickly vanished as the band dove right into a cover of Howlin' Wolf's "Poor Boy". Sensing a receptive and welcoming crowd, Imelda asked, "Now, are you ready for some rockabilly?" As a roar went up, it was quickly drowned out by the pulsating sound of Tiny Bradshaw's "Train Kept A-Rollin'." Though Aerosmith turned this very song into a masterful rock and roll hit some 40 years earlier, May managed to make it her own. The appreciative throwback throng never missed a beat, especially when it came time to sing "all night long", in appropriately timed unison.
"Big Bad Handsome Man", written by Imelda for her 2007 Love Tattoo album, had fans swaying. The arms of many a gentleman in the audience found there way around the shoulders, and waists, of their gals. The raw emotion of the tune left one feeling this sultry chanteuse was actually born in the heartland of America, instead of her native Ireland. By the time the band launched into "Sneaky Freak", the audience was hooked. Imelda winked and smiled as an array of glowing blue screens from smart phones, as well as point and shoot cameras, captured her every movement.
The pace of the show slowed down once again with, "Kentish Town Waltz". It's an autobiographical tune May wrote to describe the struggles she and her husband endured while living in a village north of London. The reprieve in action, once again, was temporary. Al Gare's thundering double bass quickly announced the "Smoker's Song". His instrument not only rocked the stage, but the very foundation of the building itself. The great thing about Imelda May was the pace she set for the show. You never knew what to expect from one song to the next, and that is what made it so entertaining. A baker's dozen of high energy numbers from her last two recordings concluded with "Johnny Got a Boom Boom". Encores included a brilliantly reworked rendition of Soft Cell's rendition of Gloria Jones' "Tainted Love", and a tribute to Elvis Presley, "My Baby Left Me".
Interestingly enough, Imelda May was on this very same stage almost four months earlier under a completely different scenario. She and her band shared the stage with legendary guitarist, Jeff Beck, as they paid homage to the music of Les Paul. Tonight, however, was a different sort of homecoming for the artist. Imelda was back singing her type of music, with her band, in front of an audience that by the end of the night, was solidly in the singer's corner. Many in attendance this evening initially thought they would end their journey to the 9:30 Club bowing down to the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. Instead, most everyone left the venerable building satisfied, knowing the rockabilly torch had been carefully passed down to a very deserving 'lady in waiting.' No argument here.