The entrance to Vicar St is a hive of activity as people begin to swarm into the venue to watch Dublin’s own Rockabilly queen perform. Ticket touts loiter next to small groups of women who, clearly embracing the spirit of the event, are dressed in full 50’s style skirts and stilettos. But these uber fans were a long time coming as Imelda May is the first to laugh at the idea that she was an overnight success, once telling an interviewer that it took about “75 years” to get to where she is today. Twelve years on from the release of her debut, countless talk show appearances, a Grammy performance, and having graced the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, the Liberties girl is back on her home turf to kick off the world tour for her latest album Tribal.
May finally struts on to the stage in a body con, monochrome, stripped dress, Christian Loubuitin turquoise heels and of course her signature quiff hairstyle rigidly held in place. As the album’s title track begins, she immediately gravitates toward her guitarist/husband, Darrell Higham on her left. Moving away from him, she theatrically prowls the stage, brimming with attitude for a growly delivery of ‘Wild Woman’. Laughter erupts when May tell us “It’s always better to go home after a sweaty night. It’s great to be back here again… what better place to start off a world tour than Vicar St in the Liberties! she says with arms open wide as if to embrace the entire room.
The set lists moves seamlessly through new tracks to the tango influenced ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’, which gives the trumpet player a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. His use of a mute gives a touch of 40’s jazz magic and widens the sound of the brass brilliantly. Similarly, on ‘Wicked Way’, brass takes centre stage along with Imelda’s sultry, controlled vocals under the stage’s smokey red lights. Like many performers, her slinky, fluid, confidence at times seems a world away from the girl who chats to us between songs. “How’s me hair? Only messing” she says before launching into ‘Hellfire Club’ and ‘Don’t Tell The Devil’. The former, inspired by the much-storied, supposedly haunted den of iniquity of the same name, is a clear fan favourite.
While May is a dab hand at getting the crowd moving with her rock n’roll, big chorus numbers, it’s the gig’s quieter moments that provide the real talking points. ‘The Kentish Town Waltz’ produces actual tears in the audience, each person obviously attaching their own individual story to Imelda’s tale about togetherness. The audience gradually join in for the chorus like an impromptu choir which is amazingly in tune for a bunch of strangers singing in unison. Elsewhere, when a technical hitch on ‘Dreaming’ leaves Imelda without a ukulele player she continues unfazed and in perfect time until her accompaniment reunites with her. The finale of ‘Johnny Got A Boom Boom’ and the introduction of eight kilt wearing uilleann pipers on ‘Clew Bay’ make for a truly atmospheric moment before the house lights came back on. Quite the homecoming for the down to earth girl with the incredible voice.
Imelda May photographed for State by Olga Kuzmenko.