by John Howard

ROCKABILLY queen Imelda May powered her way round the UK in a pre-Christmas tour that saw more sold-out signs than a hot bun shop. And when she arrived at the Cliffs Pavilion, Westcliff, it became obvious why this Dublin lass attracts the fans.

She’s much more than simply rockabilly, although her self-penned uptempo numbers have their roots in the genre that she shares with her husband and lead guitarist Darrel Higham.

There’s light and shade, loud and wistful, 100mph and slower cruisers, in a set that ran for more than 90 minutes still leaving the packed auditorium wanting more.

The evening opened with a bonus. Big Boy Bloater, more usually found fronting his own combo or music director for festival bands, but this time working alone with a tape loop, got the audience warmed up with a brief set that showcased his gutbucket blues vocals and expert guitar picking, not to mention mainly tracks from his new CD Loopy – The One Man Band Show.

Self-penned tracks like Every Path Has Its Puddle, his tribute to Bo, You Don’t Know Diddley, and his reflections on his former job in the funeral business, Pall Bearer’s Song, mixed with carefully chosen revivals like Rufus Thomas’ Bear Cat and Screaming Jay Hawkins’ Alligator Wine to provide a balanced and enjoyable set.

Photo by Maryaan Howard

Then it was star-time, as a curtained backdrop perhaps purloined from a fifties Odeon cinema was lit with an image of Imelda May’s trademark blonde Victory Roll hairstyle and red lipstick slash as the band took their places in darkness.
Darrel, drummer Steve Rushton, bass player Al Gare, and trumpeter/guitarist Dave Priseman, were in position as a smiling Imelda took the stage in a striped top and black pencil skirt as Sandy Nelson pounded away in the background – on record, of course.

She opened up with Tribal, title track from her third major label CD, an expanded version of which has just been released, running into Wild Woman, a great song which celebrates the inner Imelda with the optimism that, say, The Beast in Me, Nick Lowe’s magnum opus, lacks.

Imelda has an easy audience rapport no way at odds with her diva song-stylings, as she prowled the stage reminiscing about earlier appearance at the Essex resort alongside acts as diverse as Mike Sanchez and The Extraordinaires.

The originals came thick and fast, Big Bad Handsome Man, Love Tattoo, The Hellfire Club and the superb It’s Good to Be Alive, in which the chanteuse encouraged audience participation, before the only revival of the main show. Explaining that she sang Willie Dixon’s Spoonful in Dublin clubs at only sixteen, she launched into an atmospheric version that Howling Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, with whom she worked, would surely approve.

Her voice can have a harsher Wanda Jackson tone when required, but can soar when a torchy ballad requires it, as it did in The Gypsy in Me. In addition to playing bodhran, the traditional Irish drum, as she did on Johnny Got a Boom Boom, she also spent much of the show enthusiastically bashing a chromed tambourine.

Her songwriting is as diverse as the tempos on offer, clever, too. (It Took Forever to Find) Eternity is a great title and a great song, while Round the Bend is both danceable and amusing as she finds comic fault with her feller.

And talking of comic, she’s also not averse to comic book tales as she demonstrated on Zombie Girl, complete with cod-scary arm action, and the hard rocking Psycho.

Inside Out, and the beautiful Kentish Town Waltz, another title track Mayhem, and then as the climax, more hard rocking, and she was gone. Top that. And she did.

Re-appearing on a dimly lit stage, with just Al Gare on ukelele she gave us Cher’s Bang Bang and Blondie’s Dreaming which once more had the audience singing along before one last rocker with the full band, Right Amount of Wrong sent everyone home happy, believing, no doubt, it was good to be alive.