Aukland Concert Review

  • Steve McCabe
  • Wednesday, 17 December 2014
  • The clue, really, was on the ticket — Joan Armatrading. Not Joan Armatrading and band; no, just Joan Armatrading. And so that was the show — 90 minutes of one woman, three guitars and an electric piano.

    And it was a bloody good show. “What I thought I would do is play a song from every album,” Armatrading told a delighted full house at Auckland’s Town Hall. “Yeah, but that’s not going to happen.” Instead she played an 18-song set that spanned her 36-year career.

    She opened with City Girl, from her 1972 debut album Whatever’s For Us, followed by Promised Land, from 1990’s Hearts And Flowers. She played alone, one woman with an electric guitar, on a stage with nothing but a projector screen displaying images to accompany the songs. That’s all she needed. On Promised Land her guitar chimed and her voice soared. On the outstanding Mercy Mama, she switched to a black Ovation 12-string acoustic which she thrashed soundly it might need armour-plating, playing it almost as much as a percussion as a stringed instrument, the power and the energy in her right hand quite remarkable.

    The electric guitar returned for My Baby’s Gone, pleasingly dirty slide-guitar blues which served to remind that Armatrading, while usually pigeonholed in the largely-meaningless “singer-songwriter” category, is in fact a quite accomplished musician. She played, as has been noted, acoustic guitar with such raw fire and passion that a guitar tech appeared from the wings at the end of each song to disappear stage right with whichever instrument Armatrading had just played, presumably to re-tune it. But her playing had depth and detail as well as force; 1975’s Steppin’ Out featured both power and detail to remarkable effect. Kissin’ And A-Huggin, from the 1977 album Show Some Emotion, remained a jazzy number, but, shoehorned slightly into the middle was another exceptional bit of blues picking. It didn’t quite entirely fit into the context of the song, but it sounded good enough that, really, nobody cared.

    Armatrading revisited her recent Into The Blues album for Empty Highway, a simple but highly effective blues wail. There was too much reverb on her electric guitar, and her voice could have stood to be higher in the mix, but it didn’t matter. On songs like this, everything came together — her rich, powerful voice, with a range and a depth that other singers would cheerfully kill for, cut through the guitar line and drove the song with clarity and richness, a thing of beauty.  There were moments, such as Woncha Come On Home, when Armatrading’s voice started to show — very slightly, now, but the signs were there — a little bit of weakness in some of the higher registers, but the delicate, beautiful electric-guitar fingerpicking that accompanied more than compensated.

    The show was a solo performance, but we were told at the beginning that “elements of tonight’s concert have been pre-recorded by Joan especially for this evening to bring added colour and depth to the performance.” This translated to string accompaniments in All The Way From America, or electric piano on Mercy Mama, but for the most part, this was Joan Armatrading, solo, no backing, and it was good.

    This show was billed as Joan Armatrading’s farewell tour, and a message projected on the screen behind the stage before the show told us that this would be her “last major world tour.” The slideshow she presented, then, half-way through the concert, could have been read as self-indulgent and pretentious, but Armatrading, a wonderfully charming stage presence with just a hint of shyness, managed to make it a quite delightful moment that told the story of her career in five minutes. Not that the audience particularly needed reminding of her career; most of the crowd, largely middle-aged, middle-class and white, clearly had the greatest affection for Armatrading, and Love And Affection, her first big hit from 1976, was met with huge cheers and some slightly embarrassing middle-aged white-man chair-dancing and air guitar, and a standing ovation at the end — the first time since Armatrading had walked onto the stage that the audience were on their feet.

    The show ended with a brisk trot through Armatrading’s hits. Rosie, all chopped electric guitar and threatening-to-become-reggae joy, was followed by the big, crunching power chords of Drop The Pilot and dancing in the aisles. My Myself I featured a technically superb, but ultimately somewhat gratuitous and unnecessary, overdriven electric guitar break. And then, as the audience cheered, Armatrading announced the end of the show. “You’ve all been to concerts before,” she said, you know what’s coming. “But I’m just going to stand here and enjoy what I’d be listening to over there in the wings.” And she did just that, smiling as her audience — at this stage they were, quite unmistakably, hers — cheered and applauded. One last song for an encore, she sat at her keyboard for Willow, a crowd-pleaser since it first appeared on Show Some Emotion in 1977. She told the audience she’d be taking a break for the last couple of verses, and the thousand-strong crowd sang the song for her.

    New Zealand will likely never see Joan Armatrading play live again. This was, after all, her Farewell Tour, and she’s 64 years old already. On the strength of tonight’s show, it’s definitely Auckland’s loss.