Music

Joan Armatrading Delights in Career Retrospective

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She isn’t calling it a farewell tour, but after more than 40 years performing all over the world, Joan Armatrading has announced that her current marathon trek will be her final global jaunt. The operative word here isn’t so much “final” as “major.” The British singer-songwriter has firmly stated in press releases that she will never retire. It’s just that this 2014–2015 stretch through Australia, New Zealand, Europe, South Africa, the U.K., and, now, this spring, North America, is to be her last such venture. From now on, it’s all about packing lighter for shorter touring bouts.

For an artist who is largely thought of as a folk singer-songwriter, this is Armatrading’s first solo tour and the first she’s done without a backing band. Folk wasn’t an obvious hallmark at her concert at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan on April 17, especially as her main instrument was an electric guitar.

Armatrading’s songs stand up well without embellishment, though the introduction of keys and string samples toward the end of the evening cluttered up the arrangements. In fact, one tune, the Eighties pop number “More Than One Kind of Love,” had far more emotional and sonic power in a stripped-down setting that seemed tailor-made for Armatrading’s catalog.

Her grasp of British Sarcasm, irony, and dry-dry wit is strong. She began the evening winding her audience up: “I thought I’d play a song from every album I’ve made,” she said. Cue: deafening cheers. “But that’s not going to happen.” She picked up an electric guitar and went straight into the soulful “City Girl,” from her 1972 debut, Whatever’s for Us. Before a monumental “All the Way From America,” she joked with an impish grin, “If you know it, join in. If you don’t , then don’t, because you’ll spoil it.”

Armatrading’s main instrument is her earthy, throaty voice, which rose to a sparkling falsetto and fell in a melodious rumble. Sometimes it has a little yodel to it. “Promise Land” showed off its opulence and Joni Mitchell seemed a close musical compatriot. Like Mitchell, she tenderly tucks her voice into a song. “My Baby’s Gone” had chunky Hendrix-y riffs and recalled Sixties psychedelic blues-rock. “Me Myself I” was delivered with punk rock militant insistence, and “Rosie” pulsed with jaunty reggae.

In addition to the songs, which document her four-decade career, the screen at the back of the stage displayed a slideshow of photos collected from Armatrading’s life in music. She proudly narrated as the images flipped: There was Joan from the early Seventies, a tender tête-à-tête with the late Nelson Mandela in the Nineties, and then Armatrading anointed as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Aughts. Her life in music is all Armatrading is willing to part with publicly: She was born on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts in 1950, but her life growing up working-class in industrial Birmingham, a blue-collar city in the Midlands of the United Kingdom, didn’t work its way into the evening’s program.

Armatrading made her fans wait for the encore for the soul ballad “Willow,” a huge touchstone for this and every audience. It’s a “Let It Go”–type song about weathering life’s ups and downs that champions both tenderness and strength. “Love and Affection” conveyed similar duality: It was gentle and forceful, thoughtful and soaring, and not just through its lyrics, but in Armatrading’s keen rhythmic sense. As with her ease with delivering a punchline, she knows how to softly and deftly strike a song’s emotional core.

It was a different kind of “encore,” dispensed without Joan leaving the stage, as per usual concert protocol. At the end of the main set, she said, “This is the end of the show. You’ve been to concerts before, you know what happens. I leave the stage, you cheer and shout, then I come back to do the encore. Instead I’m going to stay here.” Folks cheered like she’d left the stage anyway; on and on they went. But then, at the beginning of the concert, they’d cheered the bejesus out of the room before she played a note. Heaven forbid she ever retire.

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