Joan Armatrading walks on to thunderous applause, a huge grin stretching right across her face. “I actually came out here to do something, but I’ve forgotten what it is,” she frets, gazing around the stage. “Somebody told me that’s what old people do.”
It’s the first of many jokes from a performer who, at 64 and with nothing left to prove, can enjoy a chuckle at her own expense. The Caribbean-born, Birmingham-raised singer-songwriter is on the 106th show of her “final major world tour”, and after three numbers claims that she is already so tired that “this is the last song”. The audience roars, because when she sings, her voice is ageless: she can still reach the high notes of her youth and is clearly bowing out of intensive touring with her famous powers undiminished.
Alone with a guitar and keyboard – with occasional pre-recorded enhancements - the well-chosen set list reflects a remarkable career. She flits from folk to rock to raw blues to even quasi-heavy metal, proud songs with themes of dignity, empathy and “a sense of self”. The protest song In These Times – accompanied by images of the Ku Klux Klan – is a particularly powerful moment.
The banter returns as she introduces old photographs of herself: getting her MBE, meeting Mandela and – not least – being immortalised in the Beano. Love and Affection receives a standing ovation, 1983 hit Drop the Pilot is slightly messy, but is soon forgotten as the audience form an impromptu choir for an ethereal, lovely Willow.
Armatrading eschews the encore ritual and instead remains on stage, savouring the moment as the crowd holler for more. Still, after 42 years and a magical 90 minutes, she’s more than earned it.
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