Joan Armatrading: The 2018 Tour – Town Hall, Birmingham

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