Imelda May has, we’re told before she takes to the stage, knocked Bruce Springsteen off the Number 1 album slot in her native Ireland, and played at the Grammys with Jeff Beck earlier this year. She’s so far failed to make quite the same impact on our shores but, with a new album on the way, her record company is striking while the iron’s hot and has assembled London’s media in a steamy second floor room at the Gibson studios, off Tottenham Court Road, to hear her sing.
Dressed in a black and white wiggle dress with her trademark black hair and blonde quiff, she seems unphazed by the gaggle before her, glugging their free wine and wilting in the heat, and performs as though she were at Wembley. Her band, including husband Darrel Higham on guitar, look rather less glamorous – a middle aged posse of Teddy Boys – but they give her an authenticity some of her contemporaries lack.
As tonight is billed as a showcase for her new album Mayhem, her Jools Holland approved record Love Tattoo stays at home. But it’s business as usual; the new tracks stick to her tried and tested formula. Yet this is only partly good news; Eternity and All For You are played back-to-back, but couldn’t be more different. Eternity, like most of the songs debuted tonight, sounds as though it was written for a man. For a sultry, vampish voice like May’s this is a waste, as becomes most apparent when she launches into All For You, which by contrast fizzes with sex. She comes to life and is the living embodiment of the song – flirting with her audience, dancing and pouting her way throughout, giving a glimpse of what she could be with the right material. It might be a clich, given the mainstream interest in burlesque and rockabilly of late, but it breathes energy into a sometimes stagnant set. Another highlight is forthcoming single Psycho, another upbeat, sassy number that sees her dancing around, playing air saxophone in the direction of her band.
The invite for this evening’s show screams a Daily Mail quote that claims May is “Dublin’s answer to Amy Winehouse“, which is so wide of the mark it’s laughable. May’s hoarse, bluesy voice may hark back to times gone by, but there’s none of the big balladeering or heart-felt warbling. With her feet firmly in the rockabilly/skiffle tradition, and layers of surf guitar thrown in for good measure, her sound is gentle enough to have the mass appeal of Winehouse while, judging by the quiffs on display tonight, also win over the more discerning fan.
The short set barely touches 40 minutes, but she squeezes in a version of Tainted Love, which has been given the Imelda May treatment, and finishes with Johnny Got A Boom Boom, the lead track from Love Tattoo. With that, she reels off the thank yous in her thick Dublin lilt. The applause would suggest those there tonight approve, but the real test will come with her second attempt at cracking the UK, when Mayhem is released in September.