Gig review: Imelda May at O2 Academy Leeds

Imelda May
Imelda May
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“Tonight we’re gonna have a bloody great time,” promises Imelda May.

The Dublin-born rockabilly revivalist lives up to this claim with a set that has a wild, life-affirming vitality.

It’s a sense of optimism that could seem cartoonish when she sings, “everything seems brighter with the sighting of the sun,” and the lights change to gold. That she manages to pull it off is, in part, because she’s already embraced a larger than life cartoon persona that’s rooted in 1950s pin-up.

With her skintight leopard skin dress, red lipstick, and quiffed hair roll it’s as if the world stopped in 1969. It’s an impression you’d also get from her lyrics, which only occasionally reference today’s society (‘Round The Bend’ mentions eBay). It’s an unashamed anachronism that’s nonetheless met with great success; her breakthrough third album Mayhem selling 400,000 copies.

It’s a feat that’s likely to be repeated with her latest release Tribal, which continues where she left off. In seeing her reprise her role as wild woman and consummately likeable performer she engages with each song via a selection of finger pointing, hip wiggling and audience-rousing hand clapping.

Such antics would only get her so far but, blessed with a husky snarl, she manages to raise her rootsy numbers above pure pastiche. Her standard rote is roadhouse stompers such as ‘Hellfire Club’ and the jukebox blues of ‘Pulling The Rug’, which are lent authenticity by husband Darrel Higham’s twangy guitar.

These are interspersed with brazen party numbers such as ‘Johnny Got A Boom-Boom’, on which she plays bodhran; the sleazy B-movie rockabilly of ‘Psycho’, which enthusiastic drummer Steve ‘Animal’ Rushton punctuates with wolf yelps; and the Caro Emerald-eque ‘Inside Out’, on which Dave Priseman makes sleazy trumpet fills.

It’s when she turns down the pace and the lights that she shows she has more than just defiantly outdated sass. The nuanced blues of ‘Gypsy In Me’ is lovely; ‘Ghost Of Love’ has some of Gemma Ray’s pop-noir; and her encore of Blondie’s ‘Dreaming’, performed with just Al Gare on ukulele, draws out its sweet melancholy.

This isn’t music that sets out to break any boundaries but with its unapologetically big choruses, sing-a-long hooks, and rollicking good time vibes it’s a delightful exercise in how to have fun.

Gig date: November 20

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