When she was 16, said Imelda May between songs, she started singing around the clubs of her hometown Dublin.
Imelda May | Rating: **** | Concert Hall, Perth
The melting pot experience this gave her, she jokes, came in handy when interviewed in later life; when speaking to a soul writer she was a soul singer, to a jazz writer a jazz singer, to a country writer a country singer, and so on, in which case Southern Fried, Perth’s annual weekend festival of roots and Americana was the best place for her.
May has carefully and subtly altered her image of late. When she first broke through at the tail end of the last decade, there were heavy rockabilly overtones to her music and her appearance, a striking combination of sculpted blonde quiff and vintage dresses.
Here, she looked and often sounded like another artist, her long dark hair and simple black dress reflecting arrangements which – even on signature tracks like Mayhem and Johnny Got a Boom Boom – were more overtly in the classic rock vein.
Her band, most notably including a deep, thumping double bass, played with volume and urgency, and May revealed a variety of vocal textures – many of them familiar to her fans, some not – which most called to mind the raw tenderness of Janis Joplin.
There was a dark sexuality to her take on Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, a sense of country mournfulness in a new song co-written with Gretchen Peters, and an absolute mastery of her audience in an acoustic take on U2’s All I Want is You which saw the audience performing harmonised lines from Lou Reed’s Walk On the Wild Side and the Rolling Stones’ classic You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
The sense was of an artist whose talent is well-developed and whose confidence is surging.