Joan Armatrading: Hammersmith Odeon, London

AS ANY regular user of London’s Underground rail network can testify, not all of the strolling troubadours who jostled for recognition in the balmy ’60s were wiped out by the bitter winds of the ’70s. A great many of the hardier specimens simply bought platform tickets and dispersed among the myriad interchange passageways that honeycomb the city’s subsoil. Between about 10 am and midnight on any day of the week there is probably more live music to be heard beneath London than in it. Now it may be just that I’ve attended one or two untypical gigs recently, but it seems to me there are signs that some of the breed are venturing over-ground again.

Richard Digance and his mate (whom he introduced Russ Conway, but don’t believe that one) are two cases in point; the former an adequate picker and unexceptionally pleasant singer, the latter the better guitarist and silent straightman (except for a spot of Cockney burlesque). The fact that Digance writes his own songs puts him a cut above the surrogate Bob Dylan/Arlo Guthrie brigade, but such numbers as ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright On The Night’, ‘Working Class Millionaire’ and the mandatory one inspired by a trip to Amsterdam, ‘The Barrel Organ Man’, are unlikely to interrupt your rush to catch the next eastbound train to Leytonstone. For the captive audience at the Odeon they were good enough to ease the long wait for Joan Armatrading.

In many ways this lady is part of the same tradition, although the quality of her songs, her far-from-average voice and the fact that she can now afford a group of extremely able accompanists has lifted her into a class of her own. Without running off on any individual ego trips, the members of her band all fulfilled their respective roles over and above the call of duty, the most obviously impressive contributions coming from Jerry Donahue, lead guitarist, and Quipman Dennis, saxman/flautist, who delivered one particular brief sax solo that was as singularly entertaining as the song it bisected.

Joan herself has an even stronger voice than one might expect from record; pliable too, capable of intense outbursts of passion and a full-throated richness that fills the theatre, or plaintive moments of quiet introspection that might well be drowned by a less sympathetic band. Paradoxically though, it was during the most forceful songs that she tended to become unintelligible, not because of the band or faulty amplification, but because of the very roundness of her tones. Coupled with the fact that she seemed a bit wary of the audience, singing more to herself than to the house, her overall presentation was probably better appreciated by the already converted than by uncommitted parties like me.

The fact that the show was being filmed by BBC for Sight And Sound (and was therefore subjected to erratic lighting and other distractions) didn’t help matters much either. Still, even if I found it difficult to digest the finer points of all of her 15 songs (mainly drawn from her last two A&M LPs) for the most part I was totally captivated by this versatile lady, making special note of ‘Won’cha Come On Home’ and ‘Mama Mercy’ as the highlights of the two extremes of her gentle-to-robust changes.

I’d never seen Joan before so I can’t compare the show by her own standards. However, I got the impression, as much from her own attitude as from one or two overheard remarks, that this night was not one of her greatest performances.

It still seemed very fine to me.

© Cliff WhiteNew Musical Express, 12 November 1977

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