Live Review: Joan Armatrading Live at St Davids Hall, 17/10/18

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