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Charming, endearing and heartfelt masterclass in emotive songwriting from Joan Armatrading.


On occasion, it's still possible to witness a truly great artist in a sized venue that retains a sense of intimacy. This is one of those occasions and finds the legendary Joan Armatrading taking to the stage in the impressive Brighton Dome.

To those not in the know, Joan Armatrading was the first black British female artist to gain significant international success. Having released a varied range of 19 albums in a career spanning over 40 years, there's an air of excited anticipation and theatricality in the seated audience. This date coming a month after a previously cancelled one after Armatrading was taken ill, only adding to the anticipation.

Forgoing any support act, Armatrading instead opts to provider her own support slot, playing her latest album Not Too Far Away in its entirety, joking: “the support slot is always songs that you don’t know”. This type of approachable and spritely wit is peppered throughout the show, which enamours herself with fans old and new.

Most impressive is how Armatrading is able to fill the enormous stage with only two pianos and her guitars, with her wonderful aura and huge presence. Her acoustic guitar melodies and husky vocals are the perfect delivery for her songs of loves both lost and powerfully felt.

With album played, she departs for a brief interlude before returning to much fanfare. On her return, Armatrading draws from her sizeable back catalogue to offer up a set of crowd-pleasers like 'Rosie' and 'Drop the Pilot', interspersed with more obscure tracks and songs not played since the early 70s. If Armatrading were to be paid by the number of times she says the word love throughout a set, she must be a very wealthy lady, and it's that single word that defines the most important theme throughout her work.

Jumping between acoustic guitars, grand piano and electric organ, this is an artist that exudes confidence and is cut from the same cloth of the 60s folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens and Joan Baez, but as ever, with a little more love added. Armatrading is a storyteller first and foremost but her natural rhythm and unique vocalising make her a completely unique artist and it’s easy to see why she has endured for so long.

Her acerbic wit again announces the encore, as she reemerges to drop her two most enduring tracks, the emotive 'The Weakness in Me', and her incredible swansong 'Love and Affection.' Every song, even those more than 40 years old are played with the kind of raw and powerful emotion as if they were performed for the first time, and again she departs to rapturous applause and standing ovations from the well and truly hypnotised audience.

Guitar solos, the use of a sampler, hilarious gags, Joan Armatrading to be the support act, the new album to be played in full and a rainbow themed light show; these are all things I didn’t expect from Joan Armatrading’s Cardiff solo show that she nevertheless delivered.

In a meta-commentary on the standard gig structure, Armatrading appeared as her own support act, playing the entirety of Not Too Far Away. This was a novel, yet refreshing idea. The amount of time that is spent on an album is immense and the order of the tracks takes serious consideration. Yet, even after all this work, it is rare for an album to be played in full live. Armatrading bucked this trend much to my delight.

Not Too Far Away is my favourite Joan Armatrading album, likely due to the fact it is the only one I have on regular Spotify circulation. Regardless, this meant I wasn’t disappointed to hear it played in full. “I Like It When We’re Together” was the perfect song to set the mood for the evening, romance tinged in sadness. It also introduced another of the more surprising element of the evening, Armatrading using a sampler to replace her backing band. This is usually the territory of young, up and coming singer-songwriters compensating for the lack of a band, not legendary musicians. Yet when you take a moment to think about it this makes perfect sense. Armatrading wrote and performed every instrument’s part on Not Too Far Away and is renowned for having total control of her sound. What better way to achieve this control live than replacing the backing band with a sampler?

While this first set went by far too quickly with the album running at just 39 minutes it contained some of the highlights of the evening. “Cover My Eyes” is a formidable pop song that allowed Armatrading to perform some of her most dynamic vocals of the evening in a song contrasted around tight drum programming which truly utilised her sampler to full effect. This was followed by “Invisible (Blue Light)” in which Armatrading performed her first and funkiest guitar solo of the evening with her processed acoustic guitar squealing and screaming. Again, not what you expect when you think of Joan Armatrading, but something she has proved herself very capable of pulling off. Finally, this first set ended with “Loving What You Hate”, a quintessentially Joan Armatrading love song and surely a future classic.

The second set, which I am going to affectionately refer to as Acoustic Classics was a celebration of Armatrading’s biggest hits, with a couple of album tracks and lesser-known songs thrown in for good measure. It was in this set that the tempo increased, and this allowed Armatrading to have more fun. In “Drop The Pilot” Armatrading strummed her guitar as aggressively as she had pulled at our heartstrings in songs such as the heartbreaking “No More Pain”, which contains the lyrics You stabbed at my heart and caused it to break…but I’ll decide that I will stand no more pain”. In these more upbeat tracks, Armatrading was accompanied by some rather erratic rainbow lights, while often quite messy they were a lot of fun and acted as an antidote to some of the sadder moments of the evening. They also helped to reinforce the positive message found in Armatrading’s gender-free universal love songs.

This method of breaking the show up into Not Too Far Away and Acoustic Classics proved the perfect way to balance the old and new, allowing Armatrading to explore a new part of her musical personality as well as to play the classic songs everyone has come out to see.

While it is almost a cliché at this point the overall highlight of the evening was her encore “Love and Affection”, by far her biggest hit and the song she deems responsible for her whole career. The response as soon as she started to strum the distinctive chords was electric and even after 42 years Armatrading appears to still love playing the song as much as audiences love hearing it.

The concert was also interspersed by a number of truly hilarious gags such as Joan Armatrading playing a couple of bars of “I Like It When We’re Together” after first coming on stage, bowing, thanking the audience for a wonderful evening and beginning to walk off stage to much laughter. This was a gag which was replicated at the beginning of the second set after her guitar was slightly out of tune when she started to play “Down to Zero” and she had to restart.

Joan Armatrading proved herself a master show-woman with her Cardiff show, captivating the audience as a solo performer in a manner most would struggle to replicate. If you ever get the chance to see her you are in for a treat.

By Max Modell

Now in her 46th year in music, Joan Armatrading is currently on the road across the UK as part of her second-ever completely solo tour.

Such is the demand for this current run, that tonight’s show at the Sage Gateshead is a complete sell-out. This seems to have been the case for many shows on this current UK tour.

The beauty of tonight’s concert is that Joan Armatrading is performing two sets, so in effect, the Grammy Nominated artist is supporting herself. During the first half of the evening, Armatrading performs her brand new album Not Too Far Away in full.

Now you might think it’s a bold move to perform a new album that most in attendance have yet to hear, but the crowd are just as equally unlikely to have heard the material performed by a support act for the first time. Of course, the fans don’t seem to mind one bit.

In this day and age and with the advent of streaming, music fans tend to listen to their favourite songs rather than whole albums. Therefore, to hear Armatrading’s latest offering performed in full and as the artist intended it to be heard, is certainly a refreshing approach.

Not Too Far Away traverses a vast musical landscape, rich in heartfelt love songs that not only showcases Armatrading’s incredible songwriting ability but also the many different facets of her artistry.

Some songs in the set are performed on acoustic guitar with the aid of a myriad of pedals and loop stations to add texture and layers to these astounding compositions, whilst others such as the beautiful “No More Pain” and “Always In My Dreams” are performed from behind a Steinway Grand Piano at the side of the stage.

The first half of the show is brought to a close with a pair of songs which have a more up-tempo contemporary sound to them than the rest of the album tracks. This includes both “This Is Not That” and “Loving What You Hate”.

The second half of tonight’s show is all about the classics, as well as the occasional deep cut. Armatrading opens her set with the truly timeless “Down To Zero” before giving a rare airing to “Kind Words (And A Real Good Heart)” and “Travelled So Far”. The latter of which hadn’t been played live since 1975.

The crowd immediately starts to clap from the opening bars of fan favourites “All The Way From America”, before the reggae-tinged “Rosie” sparks a mass singalong. Armatrading kicks things up a notch with the soulful “Mama Mercy” before hit single “Drop The Pilot” closes out a career-spanning set that leaves the crowd wanting more.

A two-song encore featuring a beautiful rendition of “The Weakness In Me” and the unmistakable “Love And Affection” brings Joan Armatrading’s marathon performance to a close.

Tonight’s concert is the perfect representation of the award-winning British singer/songwriter’s extensive songbook spanning 19 studio albums.  It goes without saying that Joan Armatrading sings from the heart, and those in attendance this evening can certainly feel it.

After 46 years in the music business, Joan Armatrading is still going strong and showing no signs of slowing down.

By Adam Kennedy

 

“Normally, at this point, you’d expect to see a support act”, says Joan Armatrading with a wry smile, “And they’d play a bunch of songs which you weren’t that familiar with. So, instead I thought I’d play you my new album in full, because you might not be familiar with it.”

Looking around I can tell that the audience agree that that’s an excellent idea. It’s illustrative of her quiet sense of humour and sets the intimate tone of the whole evening, almost as if she’s performing at a private party, for us alone.

That’s not the first indication that this is going to be a very different gig experience. The British singer songwriter strolls out without pomp, or indeed any form of introduction, onto a stage adorned only with two acoustic guitars and a keyboard. Prior to the arrival of the main act I’m used to seeing roadies and sound engineers running around, worriedly checking miles of cables, trying to identify the source of any irritating humming noises. Tonight, those preparations involved someone carefully placing a drink out for her.

“Beautifully rich”

Introductions over, the celebrated musician kicks off with the first three tracks from Not Too Far Away, her most recent studio album, ‘I Like It When We’re Together’, ‘Still Waters’ and ‘No More Pain’. Contrary to what you might expect from such a minimal set up, the sound the sound is lush and full. In part, this is down to her clever use of technology; using foot pedals to trigger bass loops and drum beats. She clearly enjoys the freedom of expression this gives her, taking time to explain how the vocal chorus is provided by using a ‘Harmony Singer’ box, which provides harmonies above and below the pitch at which she is singing. However, it’s also down to her beautifully rich singing voice, which shows no hint of ageing.

For ‘No More Pain’ Armatrading sits behind the keyboard for the first time. As she does so, she smilingly says, “Normally, when I do this there’s a big round of applause.” We happily oblige, pleased to be sharing the joke with her. The piano tone is exquisite, a big Nashville sound like that used by Bruce Hornsby. This is one of my favourite tracks from the latest record with poignant, positive and empowering lyrics: “You might be the author of my wounds, but I decide, I decide, I decide, just how this story will end.” Powerful stuff, and the audience is enraptured, only breaking the spell with rapturous applause.

“Stomping rhythm”

She plays the rest of the ten tracks on Not Too Far Away in the order in which they appear on the disc. Highlights are ‘Any Place With You’ with its stomping rhythm and words which cut to the heart of love in a way that seems so obvious, you wonder why no one’s written them before: “As longs as I’m with you, any place will do”, similarly ‘This Is Not That’ is another toe tapper.

The songstress finishes the ‘support set’ with ‘Loving What You Hate’. I like the fact that title-wise this sounds like two people in opposition, but in fact is an observation of the fact that the very things you love about someone, might be those which they themselves hate. “See you in a little while,” she twinkles, leaving the stage with as little fuss as she arrived.

It’s incredible to me (as I’ve said before in On: Yorkshire) that Armatrading has won three Grammys and an Ivor Novello award, and yet never gained a Brit Award. I think it’s high time that oversight was righted, and that she should receive a special Lifetime Achievement award at next year’s Brits. When you have been writing and performing since the 1960s and have released 21 studio albums, there’s no shortage of material to fill a set with, it’s more about how many hits you can fit in. We get an indication of this early in the second half of the evening, when Joan introduces ‘Kind Words (And A Real Good Heart)’, which she says she hasn’t played live since 1986!

“Joyful”

Clad in black enlivened with red detailing, and with trademark bobbed hair, the multi-talented musician has an easy familiarity with the audience, dropping in little anecdotes and snippets of information. We find out for instance that she studied with the Open University, undertaking the necessary personal attendance sessions at York. This is between big hits such as ‘All The Way From America’ and ‘Rosie’, which are both crowd pleasers. She finishes with my personal favourite, ‘Drop The Pilot’ to rapturous applause and a standing ovation, before once again temporarily leaving the stage.

The concert finishes as it began; with the audience being taken into the star’s confidence, “So, you’ve had the support act,” she indicates herself with a smile, “and you’ve had the main act,” again indicating herself. “Now, of course, it’s the encore.” She then plays two more numbers, ‘The Weakness In Me’ and finishing with a joyful rendition of the classic ‘Love & Affection’. The standing ovation continued until the house lights came up.

2015 marked the end of Armatrading’s mammoth world tours, since when this has been her first set of live performances. This wasn’t a nostalgia-fest, the songs on the new album are as skilfully composed and executed as her vintage material, and I for one am very glad that I got the opportunity to see a musical legend, still at her peak.

by David Schuster

It was a scene doubtless replicated across the country. November 1976. A spotty-faced 14-year-old finally plucks up the courage to strut across the school disco dance floor and ask the attractive girl he’s had his eye on for some time if she would like to dance. The song isn’t one of the numerous glam-rock numbers prevalent at that time. It’s a soulful, passionate number which resonates as much today as it did 42 years ago. Love and Affection, by Joan Armatrading would become one of those songs etched in the 14-year-old’s mind for the rest of his life.

I should know. For I was that boy soldier. So, when one of the greatest singer/songwriters this country has ever produced announced she would be performing at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Tuesday I was determined to see her live. I had waited more than four decades for this opportunity – and I wasn’t going to miss out.

Armatrading’s current UK tour is just about a sell-out everywhere and little wonder. The three-time Grammy Award nominee, who has also been nominated twice for a Brit Award for Best Female Artist has performed at the very top since the early 1970s when she first appeared on the legendary John Peel Show on BBC Radio One. She has a stunning repertoire of nearly 20 studios albums as well as several live albums and compilations.

The expectant Edinburgh audience filled the Usher Hall nearly to capacity eager to hear the great singer perform her established hits as well as newer songs from her recently released album Not Too Far Away. Armatrading didn’t disappoint.

She began by devoting the first half of her show to her new album. She displayed her renowned dry sense of humour by stating she didn’t have a support act singing songs the audience hadn’t heard of. She wanted them to hear some of her songs they hadn’t heard of.

I’ve been a huge fan of Joan Armatrading for more than 40 years and it’s become something of a trademark that some of her songs can take two or three hearings until they’re fully appreciated. However, there are some from Not Too Far Away – such as the recent single I Like It When We’re Together, Cover My Eyes as well as the title song which grab your attention immediately.

After a 20-minute interval it was time for Armatrading to give the fans what they had come to hear – some of her classic hits. She started off with Down to Zero and, among others featured Travel So Far, True Love, All the Way From America and Rosie. After Drop the Pilot, Joan sauntered off the stage saying ‘goodnight’ with an impish grin on her face. She knew, and the audience knew there was no way she was getting away without singing her most famous song.

With rapturous applause ringing around the Usher Hall, Armatrading came back on for her two-song encore. The powerful and emotional The Weakness in Me brought a lump to the throat before the inevitable Love and Affection nearly brought the near full house down.

Moments later, she left the stage to a hugely deserved standing ovation. For more than 40 years Joan Armatrading has been wowing audiences all over the world with her brilliant vocals and song writing skills. As was proved at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on Tuesday evening Love and Affection are Not Too Far Away from this fabulous legendary performer.

The one time Brummie school-girl, now international journey-woman chanteuse, savant of stealth Folk driving bluesy, jazz-fusioned reggae with a samba slant, celebrates her latest album Not Toor Away, the nineteenth in a have-guitar-will-travel forty-six-year career of multiple-award-winning singer-songwriting. The Town Hall welcome is rafter-threatening, her smile an explosion of modest delight. It’s showcase time. Ten songs from Not Too Far Away form the first part of the evening based on her inarguable premise that, if there were a support band, chances are no-one would know any of their material so why not try out mine? This is a solo Joan on acoustic guitars and keyboards exploiting an array of effect-pedal spec-tech enough to freak-out the Tardis.

The opening number is the wryly appropriate I Like It When We are Together, segueing into the pulsating spiritual intro of Still Waters brimming with trad-Folk Americana. It is abundantly clear her signature contralto vocals are in fine, spine-tingling fettle.

Always In My Dreams is a psycho-analytical conundrum redolent with Freudian teases awash with lush keyboard swells and suggestive trace elements of mischievous Randy Newman with Antony and The Johnsons. Richie Havens and, inevitably, Nina Simone, are ancestral welcome muses tickling about the vexed-Mex vivid intensity of contrary set-closer Loving What You Hate. A less chemically compromised Tim Buckley might have smiled on this. Ms Joan proffers disarming pithy quips whilst necessarily reminding the audience about stage protocols – ‘People usually clap when I move to the keyboards!’ Hardly a handbag moment but things need to be done properly. Her gig, her rules.

Set Two has evergreen Ms Joan launching into a scorching retrospective of songs with the broody-brittle, partner-poaching Down To Zero. She weaves supple and subtle textures creating shimmering tapestried memory palaces. The audience is jaw-drop pliant. Forty-six years become intense, captured distillations. Anthemic All The Way From America and the cha-cha-cha choppy Tex-Mex Rosie are worthy precursors leading to the fiesta phatasmagorical feel-good Drop The Pilot.

Fragile songs of censored confession jockey with balletic muscularity. Arrangements gestate within the spaces between the sounds of silence.

Joan Armatrading’s muse sometimes delves into close encounters of the perturbed mind. All the more rewarding then, when her songs of aching pathos become like Ming vases sympathetically resonating as butterflies make love inside them. Encores? Vintage wines taste all the sweeter for the waiting as The Weakness In Me/Love And Affection pour forth with seductive soul-intoxication.

Reviewer: John Kennedy