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Joan Armatrading Goes Solo at Parker Playhouse

Joan Armatrading
Parker Playhouse
May 3, 2015

Better than: Many performers who dare go solo, sans accompaniment.

After spending more than a year on the road as part of what’s been touted as her last extensive world tour, Joan Armatrading had no reluctance at all in admitting she’s tired. “It’s my 138th performance,” she observed a mere two songs in. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve made the show slightly shorter tonight. This will be my last number. You’ve been a great audience, and I’ll leave you with this.”

She was joking, of course — Armatrading has a self-effacing brand of humor, and her stage patter is certainly polished — but there seems to be more than a hint of truth in what she had to say. One can certainly forgive any fatigue. At the age where many folks are opting for a pension or social security, a solo trek that stretches this long would likely be taxing on anyone, a person who’s age 64 especially.

Yet if some of her performances seem a bit rote and her conversation with the crowd somewhat rehearsed, it certainly didn’t detract from the adulation she was feted with from an audience of obvious devotees. Most every song received an enthusiastic response, and those that were clear crowd favorites — “More Than One Kind of Love,” “Love and Affection,” “Down to Zero,” “The Weakness in Me,” and the much requested “Willow" — were greeted with standing ovations. Although dressed entirely in black, Armatrading positively beamed as she basked in the applause, but as she herself admitted right before offering an encore, the appreciation wasn’t unexpected.

In fact, Armatrading’s concert is constructed to maximize the affection and adulation she’s earned throughout a career that spans four decades and has produced songs that have become an integral part of modern music’s essential vocabulary. Her ability to blend rock, reggae, blues, and balladry is only part of the reason she remains such a singular performer. Add to that a still vibrant vocal — one that easily shifts from the gruffest growl to a soaring soprano — and a knack for menacing guitar licks and it’s clear Armatrading’s still capable of dazzling diversity.
Naturally then, she was all too eager to tout her triumphs, courtesy of a slide show that traced her career from its earliest beginnings through to her ‘80s successes and into the more recent and mature phase of her career. She noted her many accomplishments: the fact she was the first pop artist to play the main room at Ronnie Scott’s famous London jazz haunt, her participation in a London concert that drew a record 260,000 people, her private audience with Nelson Mandala, and her mingling with rock royalty. And while it was likely intriguing for the uninitiated, it was hardly news to those who were there. Often, the show seemed more like a victory lap, enjoyed by an artist who was merely rehashing a string of successes.

Not surprisingly, Armatrading’s fretwork was most potent when she drew from the three recent albums that formed her so-called blues trilogy. Her slash-and-burn riffing and supple leads were most impressive, and though she depended on prerecorded tracks to flesh out some of the melodies, she still managed to present herself as a one-woman wonder. Ironically, the audience’s attention seemed to wane when she went off on that singular tangent, prompting several requests for the better-known tunes in her repertoire.

She teased the crowd by remarking that touring solo had caused to change some things she’s always done dramatically, including dropping “Love and Affection,” an early fan favorite. Here again she was joking, but given her set approach, nothing could be taken for granted. After all these months on the road, she was clearly intent on keeping with the format.

Ultimately, solo shows are a risky proposition. Without other musicians to help shoulder the burden, a performer suffering from road fatigue can hinder a performance. Armatrading’s ability to sustain her enthusiasm is notable in that respect, and if her concert seems a bit too pat, she’s easily forgiven. Still, it’s worth noting that the only hint of spontaneity came when she flubbed a note in “My Baby’s Gone” and decided to start over. It was one of the few moments when, to paraphrase the title of one of her more famous songs, she actually dropped the (auto) pilot and dared to diverge.

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: It was somewhat surprising that a popular song like “I Love It When You Call Me Names” didn’t make the set list. For that matter, neither did “I’m Lucky” or “Show Some Affection," another tune that frequently showed up on FM playlists back in the day.

The Crowd: Couples, both straight and gay — all staunch fans.

By the Way: It’s a rare treat to see Joan Armatrading in performance, and considering the fact this is her last major world tour, the opportunities to do so may become few and far between.

Set List
City Girl
Promise Land
More Than One Kind of Love 
All the Way From America
In These Times 
Mama Mercy 
My Baby's Gone
Down to Zero 
Steppin' Out 
Kissin' and a Huggin' 
The Weakness in Me
Empty Highway 
Woncha Come On Home
Love and Affection
Drop the Pilot
Me Myself I
Encore: Willow 
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Lee Zimmerman

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