When an erstwhile lauded artist decides to perform live, years beyond their documented peak, there’s a risk of disappointment. On this occasion, though, no bubbles were burst; Joan Armatrading ages like wine. Dry and full bodied, with contralto overtones, she leaves you giddy with pleasure.
'I will never retire but this will be the last major tour that I will undertake,’ she says of her 2015 series of solo concerts. And looking at her crazy, country-hopping schedule, I’m hardly surprised that someone who has been performing for 42 years might want to wind down a bit.
But this 64-year-old isn’t knitting sweaters by the fireside. Tonight, in her 150th concert, the doyenne of British Rock-Folk-Jazz-Blues regaled us with the likes of City Girl, The Weakness in Me, All the Way from America, Rosie and, of course, Love and Affection, showcasing her depth and range not only as a singer, but also as an accomplished guitarist and pianist. If you’re reading this you’ll probably know her songs, so I won’t elaborate. What you might not know is that the former latchkey kid from Birmingham was the first non-jazz artist to be allowed to play downstairs at Ronnie Scott’s. And the first non South African to play at the country’s 20th anniversary of democracy celebrations.
We found out about her illustrious career through a slideshow presentation, which lent a gentle intimacy to the evening. We learned that Ahmed Kathrada and other stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement would listen to her on the journey to Swaziland, where they had to meet because they could not do so in their home country. Her song In These Times, from her 2003 album Lovers Speak appeared on a compilation album for peace in Tibet. This context, the political events she lived through, resurrected her music’s poignancy and edge.
It takes a rare performer to combine flair with substance, rock with humility, talent with stamina; but Armatrading has made a career of it, upstaging lesser beings. In order to get to her this evening, though, we had to endure forty minutes of a supporting act whose guitar, to be fair, was quite good in an Ally McBeal sort of way, but whose lyrics (“I’ll always be stuck to my Velcro girl” is the one that particularly attaches to the brain) left me thinking, seriously? Best leave it at that.
While the volume and reverb were a bit much at times, the braiding of energetic riffs, smooth melodies and personal anecdotes resulted in a musical conversation with the audience that left me more joyful, moved and inspired than I had thought I would be. This is what good music does best, and the standing ovation Armatrading received at the end of the evening is a testament to just that.