Imelda May. The name evokes thoughts of Irish coffee, tranquil green pastures and Kerrygold butter. But there is nothing tranquil about this Dublin gal. As a certain "Star Wars" character once said "The force is strong with this one."
I saw May at The Fillmore in San Francisco and she tore the place apart. The UK’s Guardian described her version of rockabilly as "feral." There is no doubt that she totally lives her songs, and belts them out with a wildcat passion I have rarely seen.
I first saw Imelda May on a Sundance show called "Live From Abbey Road," when she sang a spirited version of The Beatles "Oh Darling." She has made appearances on the UK’s "Later… With Jools Holland," and on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, and toured with Jeff Beck, culminating in a wonderful performance of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s "How High The Moon" at Jeff Beck’s Tribute To Les Paul at New York’s Iridium club.
The support band at the Fillmore on Thursday was the Rhythm Shakers, who provided some high-energy rockabilly songs. But when May and her band took the stage, the energy went to another level. After a couple of opening numbers, including "Big Bad Handsome Man," she informed the crowd that this was the band’s third appearance at The Fillmore, but its first as headliners. About time. When she asked the crowd if there were any Irish amongst them, there was a loud response, though I suspect many of them just wanted to be Irish for the night.
May also plays the bodhran, a kind of Irish drum, and she tells the story of seeing a number of them hanging on the wall of a Philadelphia store. When she took one down and started playing it, the owner was aghast. "We’ve been selling them as ornaments," she said. The band then rolled into the spirited "Good To Be Alive" from the new "Tribal" album, and had the whole audience involved in a sing-along.
May’s band just manages to keep up with her, and provides some driving bass and guitar lines. Al Gare plays the double and electric bass, and Dave Priseman helps out with guitar, trumpet and some percussion. Priseman’s trumpet playing lends some nice dirty sounds to the more bluesy numbers. Steve Rushton keeps it all together on the drums, but May’s husband, Darrel Higham, is a standout on lead guitar, matching May’s energy level.
May wrapped up the main set with "Inside Out," from 2010’s "Mayhem," and "Johnny Got A Boom Boom from 2008’s "Love Tatoo," where Al Gare really showed some double bass chops. But to show that she also has a gentler side, for the encores, the double bass was laid on its side and May and Gare sat side by side. Accompanied only by Gare on ukulele, May gave us touching versions of Cher’s "Bang Bang" and Blondie’s "Dreaming." The show finished with a bang as the whole band came out for a rousing rendition of "Right Amount of Wrong."
Imelda May is a force to be reckoned with, and great fun to watch. Her primal shouts and guttural sounds are quite surprising coming from her slight figure, and she really seems to live the lyrics of each of her songs. If you get the chance, catch her show.
Email Tony Lacy-Thompson at email@example.com