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Sunday, 25 November 2012

Live Review - Joan Armatrading

New Theatre, Oxford

November 18 2012

Baby, it's cold outside....so what could be a more welcome relief than an evening spent in a beautiful theatre in one of Britain's quaintest, cosiest cities, in the company of one of its best-loved (if not accordingly respected) singer-songwriters?

"Very little" is the answer, yet, because of its inherent cosiness and quaintness (some would even dare say 'twee'), Oxford on a Saturday night isn't exactly known for its rocking, party atmosphere. Some might also say this is a factor which befits Joan's subtle, reflective and still unclassifiable music perfectly: nevertheless, there was an overwhelming air of politeness about tonight's proceedings that was undoubtedly not her doing, and seemed to emanate far more from the audience, which was actually slightly smaller than one would have expected. I guess playing several dates very geographically near to each other (Cambridge, Aylesbury, Stevenage, Reading and London all featuring on the itinerary in close succession) in this day and age is more of a risk than it would have been even ten years ago: on the flipside, the fact that Joan still wants to take it speaks several volumes. 

Is she Shindig! material? Well, of course. Rooted in folk and gospel, filtered through soul, funk and blues, occasionally leaning towards hard rock, and with a new album dripping with jazz overtones (which also inflected much of her early work), she's no less than the UK's very own Joni Mitchell - except still actively recording and touring. There will also always be inevitable comparisons to the doyenne of confrontational female lyricists Janis Ian, but those are rooted more in a shared sexuality and ethnicity than the music itself. Tracy Chapman? She was shit. Tasmin who? At least Joan's songs aren't played by every shit busker from Hove to Holmfirth - probably because, even at their most deceptively simple, they're still too complicated. 'Show Some Emotion' may soundlike a perfect slice of late 70s Yacht Rock with Southern Soul overtones, but there are already so many layers going on within the opening two minutes that it's hard to take it all in.

You have to admire any artist so devoted to their music that they care literally nothing for image, but maybe the woolly bunnyrabbit jumper, grey slacks and sandals (it's safe to say that really, only she could get away with it) might have resulted in the 'Single Life' she satirises so perfectly in the new song of the same name. What a song it is, though: with a time signature Zappa would have been proud of, a melody that recalls Kenny Dorham's 'Blue Bossa', and guitar playing as good as either Beck or Santana but without the overwrought flash of either, it highlights a continued creativity that many nowadays seem content to lose as early as their 40s. 'Close To Me', on the other hand, isn't quite as interesting, but, like David Gates' or Daryl Hall's lesser material, still retains an indefinable something which elevates it above MOR blandola. So far so good, leading back into soulful pianistic classics with 'All The Way From America'- and then she blows it. If I wanted to wave my arms in the air inanely, I'd have gone to see Barry Manilow- well, no, actually, I wouldn't, which is half the point. And you'd have thought she'd take the fact that nobody except the first 3 rows did it the first time as some kind of hint, but, no, here we go again: "if you all do it at once", quoth the lady in her best Brummie brogue, "it looks really cool". Er, no, Joan, it doesn't.

What the hell though, I can forgive her- I can forgive anybody responsible for writing tunes as undeniably perfect as 'Tall In The Saddle', 'Starlight' (the title track of the superb newie) and 'Kissin And A Huggin', the latter of which features some of the most ferocious thrashing of an acoustic guitar I've seen since the last time I came face to face with Lindsey Buckingham, with suitably robust vocals to match. In fact, Joan's vocal prowess overall is every bit as powerful as during her '74-'82 heyday: she remains one of only a handful of artists whose talent in that respect has been untouched by time and age. And accordingly, she's assembled a band to match, with John Giblin (the man whose talents have stretched across the spectrum from John Martyn's Grace And Danger to Scott Walker's Tilt), outstanding on both bowed and plucked bass, again without ever stooping to the superslick virtuoso flash so redolent of today's "backing" musicians, and a wonderfully loose, intuitive drummer.

The keyboard player, on the other hand, HAS to go: despite a dizzying display of tinklatory prowess, his choice of MIDI sounds is responsible for covering everything from 'Me Myself I' (one of the essential songs of the New Wave era) to the hard-rocking 'Call Me Names' and the still-essential 'Love And Affection' in an unwelcome coating of what we used to call 'Mantovarnish'. I understand that it's a budgetary issue, as it is with many acts still touring at this level (the cash simply isn't there to hump real Mellotrons, Fender Rhodes' and Hammonds around the UK), and on a song like "Drop The Pilot", which always erred a little on the cheesy side, it's less noticeable- but I could do without it being there at all. Also, If I had my druthers, as "they" used to say, I'd have given anything to hear 'My Family', 'Head Of The Table' or anything from that seminal debut rather than the shoutalong faux-AOR of 'Best Dress On'- but then again, I'm a courduroy-clad, folksy, proggy old git (allegedly), so I'm always going to say that, aren't I?

Exterior shortcomings aside, Joan is, and always will be, a superior talent- but as it stands now, she suffers, like Al Stewart and several other contemporaries, from being unable to satisfactorily replicate her recorded sound onstage. Hopefully one day, somebody will grease the industry bods' palms enough to make the congnoscenti "reappraise" her genius, which will in turn allow her to display it to greater effect.

Darius Drewe Shimon

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