REVIEW: Joan Armatrading at The Barbican

Joan Armatrading
Photo credit: Justin Ng

Joan Armatrading
(The Barbican, 13 September 2018. Review by Chris Parker)

From the very start, this sellout concert (one of over 30 on Joan Armatrading’s current UK tour, embracing venues from Exeter to Edinburgh) had an air of triumphant celebration about it. The faithful (including Ed Balls and Graham Norton) had gathered to pay homage to an artist who had provided the soundtrack to their emotional lives, and they greeted her relatively low-key arrival on the Barbican stage ("It’s a long walk," her first remark) with rapturous whooping and cheering.

As if to defuse expectation that this might be merely a crowd-pleasing display of her greatest hits, Armatrading immediately announced herself as "the support act", explaining that the concert would follow convention by featuring a first set consisting of songs nobody knew: her new album Not Too Far Away in its entirety. She then completed her impression of a nervous unknown by stumbling on the very first line of I Like It When We’re Together, but swiftly gathered herself by means of a couple of gracefully self-deprecating muttered asides and launched herself into a characteristically touching, unaffected love song propelled by subtly rhythmic guitar.

The Armatrading voice, conversationally intimate in its lower registers but capable of thrilling stridency where necessary, has aged pretty well; as Joni Mitchell has done, she has judiciously replaced the effortless intervallic leaps of yore with a more considered, contemplative approach which perfectly suits her contemporary material, itself less emotionally convoluted than many of her early songs. Still Waters and Always In My Dreams saw her change to piano (a mock-indignant "I usually get applause when I sit down here" rewarded with an obedient ovation at each subsequent move to the instrument), but otherwise, she stuck to guitar accompaniment, with vocal harmonies and occasional percussive and instrumental commentaries provided by what she referred to as "a little box" at her feet, triggered by pedals. Arguably – given the customary muffled boxiness of the Barbican acoustic – this facility did her music few favours, cluttering rather than embellishing her overall sound, and sewing the seeds for problems in the concert’s second half.

After the interval, Armatrading started as she meant to go on, with an accomplished rendition of one of her most celebrated songs, Down To Zero. A selection of familiar favourites followed, including All the Way From America and Drop The Pilot, but just as she was relaxing into cruise mode, the "little box" quit on her, necessitating a series of undignified stagefloor scramblings by three technicians. These shenanigans seriously compromised the show’s emotional momentum, which had been building naturally courtesy of Armatrading’s easy grace and growing confidence, but they didn’t prevent her receiving a wild ovation at the conclusion of her set: her audience had come to honour and support her, and were richly rewarded for their faithfulness by a concluding encore of her most richly complex and beautiful song: Love And Affection.

So, in the end, this concert was not quite the unalloyed triumph it should have been, which – given the entirely justifiable affection in which Armatrading is held – is a shame, but no doubt subsequent venues on her UK tour will more than make up for the problems she encountered here.

First half
I Like It When We’re Together
Still Waters
No More Pain
Cover My Eyes
Invisible Blue Light
Not Too Far Away
Any Place
Always in My Dreams
This is Not That
Loving What You Hate

Second half
Down to Zero
Kind Words
Travel So Far
Empty Highway
True Love
All the Way from America
Rosie
I Really Must be Going
Mama Mercy
Drop the Pilot

Encores
The Weakness in Me
Love and Affection

5 comments:

  1. The same issues with the Pedal Box in Poole this evening though on this occasion it seemed to be more pilot error than technical malfunction. I'm a huge fan but the concert was disappointing partly due to an oncoming cold but mainly caused by the karaoke-style musical accompaniment. Degraded the intimacy of the occasion.

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  2. Exactly, sounded like cheapskate Joan. We've always enjoyed her concerts going back to mid 1970's but this karaoke version left little to any spontaneous behaviour by her. As a result cold and disappointing.

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  3. Yes agree with above however what can't be ignored is Joan's amazing talent and her contribution to my evolvement into a 60 yr old male. Amazing voice and skills. Would love to see her 'step back' enjoy her own self awareness and focus in in more intimate gigs. Love her goose bumps at 60

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  4. Although I quite like most of what she has recorded and in spite of the obvious "devoted fan element" I found this concert underwheming. This will probably be the last time I go and see any one perform solo again with a box of tricks to help them along. Much better with a proper support combo of live musicians. There wasn't one song from her latest album that I would want to listen to after an intial play (and I do have the album). As such, I took advantage of the intermission and made my way home. Other friends who attended for the whole set summed it up by saying that the concert promised more than it delivered.

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  5. Saw her in Exeter and was very disappointed and agree with the comments above. There were a couple of high lights when she didn't use the backings and just played those lovely martin guitars without to much effects and it was just her good voice and the guitar. Employing a full band obviously must be expensive, but at nearly £40 a ticket a live bass player and percussionist would have been more pleasing

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