Bristol’s Colston Hall is a tale of two centuries. Firstly, there is the modern lobby and adjoined café where cubed seats and glass tables cling to the walls like a forgotten game of dice. In a masterstroke of artistic modernity there weren’t enough cubes for the restless latecomers who had no choice but to loiter and form orderly queues just for the hell of it. On the ground floor a jazz singer battled against the wash of sound checks and arithmetic that filtered through the walls of the auditorium – ‘one-two one-two…rubber duck…’ Sympathetic clapping grew more lacklustre as it spiralled up each level. On the top floor, as if dragged by the tide of a Mexican wave, we gently applauded what we hadn’t heard.
In contrast to its modern foyer, the entrance to the Colston Hall arena is like stepping through a time warp. The worn wooden seats had stories to tell and the panelled balconies glistened with thick gloss; layers peeled in places to reveal a more colourful past. The assembling audience was a charismatic array of period pieces and slick-backs. I hadn’t seen so many casualties of leopard print and Brill cream since the local feminist alliance boycotted Teddy Boy Tuesday at the Pontypool Workingman’s Club.
The supporting act was rock’n’roll home-boy The Real John Lewis, “No toasters, here!”. Either Gremlins had been let loose on the soundboard or the sound guy needed a good dapping. Regardless, Johnny Bach didn’t skip a beat; always at ease and engaging the crowd between pacey numbers, coupled with irreverent bursts of down-to-earth character from ‘across the bridge’. In our beloved Wenglish mother-tongue, Johnny Bach modestly announced that there were, “see-deez for sale in the foya” (sic), before dropping in a John Lewis iPad gag, and then bursting into a playful medley. As momentum reached full pace the thick sea of slick-backs and throw-backs rocked and applauded. The Real John Lewis acknowledged the hall after the final song -and with a bow, exited stage-right. Live is where the rockabilly heart is!
At around 9pm Imelda May graced the stage. She looked like the femme fatal that film noir had forgot, sporting her trademark blonde curl, an Elvis printed dress and red high-heels. Her powerful voice punched the air as if celebrating liberation; between songs, snappy wit and lush Dublin tones passed sweetly through her cherry red lips. The set featured most of the tracks from the ‘Mayhem’ album, a few songs from ‘Love Tattoo’ and some rockabilly covers. ‘Kentish Town Waltz’ induced gentle sways while ‘Johnny Got A Boom Boom’ and ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’ had us stomping the Colston floorboards for all they were worth.
The ninety minutes of high octane rockabilly blues and sensual soul flew by like a bullet train. For the encore Imelda effortlessly belted out an Elvis Presley number followed by a rockabilly version of Tainted Love which was simply sublime. The biggest ovation of the night came during the band introductions when someone from the back row shouted, ‘what about Imelda May?’ You can add modesty to the growing list of May’s endearments.
To tell the truth, if anybody had asked me what I thought of Imelda May prior to the release of ‘Love Tattoo’ I would have claimed to know little about virulent strains of tree disease. I’m not generally interested 1950’s rockabilly music but May’s contemporary touch has transformed the rockabilly sound into something more modern and accessible – while retaining the roots and echoes of yesteryear’s pressed vinyl.
Over the years Imelda May has stuck firmly to her guns in terms of musical direction by refusing to bow to the expectations of record labels eager to groom, mould and market her into a different product; I respect her for doing so. The fact that this endearing Dubliner was not featured among any of the Simon Cowell’s cash-converters at the recent Brit Awards is the most telling evidence yet that the British music industry is robbing us all blind.