Gig review: Joan Armatrading. Usher Hall

Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading

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Three songs in, Joan Armatrading gently puts down her guitar and steps shyly into the spotlight. An awed hush descends on the crowd, as they await some sage words or unexpected personal insight from one of pop’s most private performers.

“I think it’s going well – we should just play more songs!” smiles the 61-year-old.

Notoriously reticent about her life outside the industry, it’s noticeable that without her guitar in hand, she looks much less at ease. It’s as if, with nothing to hide behind, she feels more exposed to the searching glare of hundreds of strangers.

Given the emotive nature of her subject matter, it shouldn’t be that surprising.

It’s apt that Armatrading is perhaps best-known for her 1976 top ten hit Love and Affection, because whether it’s ballads like All The Way From America, the power-rock of Drop The Pilot or the gutsy, bluesy showmanship of Show Some Emotion, the singer-songwriter, together with her three-piece band, is a master of communicating the heartbreak and heartache of relationships.

Her distinctive vocals are powerful, yet fragile, oozing confidence and vulnerability in equal measures.

It’s a real storyteller’s voice, which, combined with the self-effacing demeanour, makes for a knotty but enigmatic performance that blossoms as those strangers slowly become friends.

There’s an impressive array of styles – rock, blues, jazz, soul and funk – on show throughout the set, sometimes even all in one song, like Tall In The Saddle, while her background in musical theatre (she starred in the nationwide tour of Hair in the late 60s) is evident in the composition and performance of Stole My Heart.

Not everything works perfectly – a couple of songs from the new album, like Single Life and Tell Me, are a little on the bland side, but with Love and Affection and The Weakness In Me in her armoury, you can forgive the odd dose of filler here and there.

Simple, honed and emotionally-charged, both are sublime, executed with care and precision, each well-suited to the grandeur of the Usher Hall, and ultimately deserving of the standing ovation Armatrading received at the end of the night.

Rating; * * * *