Imelda May

Perth Concert Hall

Graeme Thomson

four stars

IN MANY ways Imelda May is the perfect headliner for Southern Fried, Perth’s annual, admirable celebration of American roots music. The Dubliner draws on rockabilly, blues, country and jazz with a modern cutting edge which is becoming ever more impressive.

May has updated her image – gone are the retro frocks and extravagantly kiss-curled 1950s hair-do – and her music has evolved, too. The irresistible strum-and-twang of Johnny Got a Boom Boom, Big Bad Handsome Man and Inside Out delivered good rockin’ in spades, but Wild Woman, I Wanna Dance and Round the Bend, all from 2014’s Tribal, were closer to early Blondie, the Cramps and the B-52s than Wanda Jackson. Most significantly, May also previewed – somewhat nervously (“please don’t phone it”) – two stunning new compositions. The first was a gold-star country ballad written with Gretchen Peters; the second a heavy slice of Southern gospel. Both suggest she is heading not just deeper into American roots, but also further into her own soul.

Her flawless four-piece band rocked hard while measuring out the requisite amount of brooding intensity: Wicked Way, with its muted trumpet and sultry sexual tension, was a particular stand-out. May’s voice, meanwhile, was a wonder. She squeezed every last drop of juice from Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, and moved from hell-cat howl to sultry whisper on It’s Good to Be Alive, offered as a communal antidote to these “weird times”. For an encore, she perched on an upended double bass and sang U2’s All I Want is You to a simple ukulele accompaniment. By the end, she wasn’t the only one wiping away a tear.