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Joan Armatrading, one of the world’s most prolific and enduring songwriters and musicians, spent her 65th birthday this week in Canberra, giving Territorians the chance to share an intimate evening with her. It was only fitting then that the audience broke into a spontaneous rendition of ‘happy birthday’ to start proceedings.  Joan seemed to like it, but thankfully took over the musical selection from there.

Tuesday’s performance at the cosy Canberra Theatre was part of Joan’s final world tour. And it was personal, and laid back, and pared back. There was Joan on stage, her piano, three of her beloved guitars, and not much else – just her and the music. There was certainly no high tech production and lighting here (see Queen in concert if you want that), all pretty low key (and the cynic in me has to presume, lower cost) with one screen for a bit of visual background, but that intimacy is what Joan wants this tour to be all about. In her own words ‘For the first time these concerts will be me solo on stage …. I want these concerts to be a special lively interactive one to one experience.’

She appeared just as you’d expect – dressed in her trademark black loose pants and jacket, and sensible sandals, crazy hair almost obscuring her eyes – and padded quietly and comfortably around the stage, calmly commanding the stage and singing her 42 year song writing and music-making history.

The music moved effortlessly from acoustic guitar to electric to piano and back, and style to style, taking in jazz, blues, folk and pop, and of course, her most beloved classics. We swapped decades as Joan swapped instrument of choice and we re-loved All the Way from America before we moved to the more recent and beautiful In These Times, and the bluesy Empty Highway. Joan the guitarist was on display, but so was the sensitive pianist, the songwriter and the vocalist – and it was a fine display. Joan was keen to share some of her recent blues and reggae and material released over the decades, but it is her early work that really shines and for which she is best admired, and these were the moments of the show to remember.

Just when I was beginning to wish she’d do something else but move between instruments to deliver another song, Joan gave a little slideshow of her musical history in pictures, and drew the audience a little into her world. There followed a veritable Who’s Who of the music world on screen, with good humoured name-dropping and a fascinating recounting of tales and her quite lofty achievements. It was a rare insight into the world of this mysterious, intensely private woman who is loathe to give much personal stuff away, either on stage or in interviews. Even the glimpses revealed in the slideshow of just the music of Joan reaffirmed her shyness and her commitment to the separation of work and private. And don’t be misled into thinking the deeply introspective lyrics she sings are necessarily autobiographical – she claims she writes and sings observations of life rather than her own tales. It’s very convincing.

joan

No photography please, at the request of the artist.

The deep resonance of Joan’s unmistakable contralto voice is still clear and haunting in the lower registers, and her solo rendition of Down to Zero a special moment, with vocals not far off the studio version, with masterful guitar work on display and that distinctive upward guitar strum. Despite teasing the audience about whether she’d sing the definitive Love and Affection (after all, she’s sick of doing it since she’s sung it every performance she’s ever done since 1978), of course it appeared. And she did it justice by herself, with a bit of assistance from a sneaky sax recording beamed in in the essential spots. This was her first hit, and in my opinion, her finest ever. (I once gave that song the title of the best song in the world – subjective of course – but when you’re by yourself, play it, loudly, letting the volume build, and let yourself rise with the gradual crescendo – lyrically and instrumentally – that moves through the song, and just wait for that sax breakthrough three quarters of the way through. Sublime.)

Despite the excellent delivery of those couple of classic songs during the evening and Joan’s mastery of the guitar, my chosen highlight was her performance of The Weakness in Me, seated quietly at the piano, caressing the keys with such feeling and understanding it brought a tear to my eye. That phrasing not quite where you expect it. This is why I came.

Being just metres from the stage was a treat, in keeping with the up close and personal theme, enabling us to feel connected and to watch the guitar work, and the sparkling eyes that so often hide behind that fringe, and the beaming smile, which appeared often. In fact, the night was a treat so it was surprising the venue still had plenty of space for more – that an artist of this calibre no longer has the capacity to fill such spaces. Perhaps it was the marketing, or perhaps Joan hasn’t followed the mainstream route of others, but it deserved to be full.

It didn’t all go quite to plan. At one point after an inconsequential false start to a song, Joan explained the clever things her blue electric guitar could do. But something seemed awry with said guitar during Drop the Pilot, causing the singer a little distraction, and maybe that’s what put the vocals off, but it fell flat. The follow up Me, Myself, I suffered the same fate. That’s the problem with leaving the band and the backing vocals behind – it’s  hard to reach the high energy of upbeat numbers, and there’s nowhere to hide. But the 50-plus audience didn’t seem to mind much and were greatly appreciative of this woman and that music from long ago (and more recently), and gave fitting applause throughout the night. Pity the crowd’s singing enthusiasm displayed at the beginning of the night disappeared when the rousing Rosie came along. Luckily there was crowd redemption at the end. The final song of the evening, the stirring Willow, was a faultless piano-led performance, and with the audience finally finding its voice to provide the chorus solo, a little bit of magic descended in the theatre.

It was nice to see you, Joan – and in the words of Abba – thank you for the music.

As is Joan’s practice, the show was supported by a local (Australian) artist – the elfin-like earth child, and strangely apologetic, Ashleigh Mannix, who sang and played guitar with passion and talent.

Set list

  • City Girl
  • Crazy for You
  • More than One Kind of Love
  • All the Way From America
  • 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
  • Back to the Night
  • Rosie
  • Drop the Pilot
  • Me, Myself, I
  • Willow
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