Review: Imelda May

When Simon Hale visited Symphony Hall he had no idea how poignant the night would prove.

With her jet-black fringe, skin-tight mini dress and high-heeled ankle boots, Imelda May was dressed to thrill when she took to the stage at Symphony Hall. Tragically, at around the time that she was completing her appearance, an evil individual opposed to our liberal values arrived at another music venue in Manchester dressed to kill.

Only an hour or so earlier, the Birmingham audience were saddened to silence by a reminder of a similar atrocity when the Dublin-born singer songwriter spoke of her heartache from the loss of two members of her record company that were killed in the Bataclan massacre in Paris. May sang Love and Fear, a moving tribute that she composed after a priest’s prayers for the victims had made an indelible impression on her: “He said there are only two emotions, not love and hate but love and fear, and that good people do bad things. If we have a choice, then I choose love.”

Heartache weaved its way through the evening from the moment when May, seated behind the stage mist, sang the languorous Call Me, full of yearning, from her new album Life Love Flesh Blood. In fact all the songs on the album, including the iTunes bonus tracks, were given an airing. There wasn’t just sadness – she had split up with her guitarist husband after eighteen years – but a longing to find new love and sensuality, expressed through a thrilling mix of jazz, blues, gospel, pop and rock.

“If there’s a theme (to this evening), then it’s lust and desire,” May announced before she and her band of guitarists and bass and brass players raised the decibels to symphonic heights for the raunchy How Bad Can a Good Girl Be and Wild Woman.

May revealed her witty side too, with the gospel number When It’s My Time, pointing in turn at the audience while singing “I’m a sinner, but I’m not the last or the first”. So too, an addiction to online shopping with ‘Bad Habit’ that she introduced with the words “If your heart is broken, just click away”. The bluesy Black Tears (“I wrote it after looking at my face in the mirror and seeing nothing but black tears”) and Who Takes Care of Me were ballads for the lovelorn in the packed audience.

A return to her old rockabilly days with Mayhem and ‘ohnny Got a Boom Boom, during which she beat an Irish bodhran drum, got the audience out of their seats and jigging in the aisles. Whatever the genre, May’s powerful melodious voice ruled supreme.

A stillness finally returned as May sat with an acoustic guitarist for‘The Girl I Used to Be, a gentle folk song devoted to her Dublin roots and her daughter – without anyone anticipating the tears to come.