Concert review: Joan Armatrading goes solo at the Capitol Theatre, Clearwater

A rare solo performance by the vet British singer-songwriter on her final world tour

click to enlarge Joan Armatrading at Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Fri., May 1, 2015 - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
Joan Armatrading at Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Fri., May 1, 2015

For what she's billed as her last-ever world tour, Joan Armatrading decided to live up to the title of one of her most popular songs, "My Myself I," and hit the road completely alone. For the first time in her 40-year career, the revered  64-year-old British-raised singer-songwriter was delivering her heartfelt, poignant blend of songs to audiences around the world on the strength of her own stage presence and with only guitar and piano. [Words by Gabe, photo by Kevin.]

Luckily, the extensive and rigorous touring schedule she's embarked on included a stop at downtown Clearwater's lush and intimate Capitol Theatre on Friday night. For an artist who rarely comes to America and hasn't ever really achieved the popularity here that she holds throughout Europe, she has enough loyal followers base that people still came out in droves to see her, and the jam-packed theater sang along and cheered wildly throughout her 90-minute performance. 

Taking the stage in simple, casual black slacks, top and sandals, Joan seemed downright appreciative and humbled by the first of many standing ovations she'd receive. A sparse stage with an array of guitars on one side, a small electric piano on the other and a modest video screen at the rear was what Armatrading had to work with. But the real treat was not only the charm and down-to-earth attitude she projected, but the witty and downright comical repartee she offered through the night. While she might come across as meek and withdrawn in the soul-bearing, brutally honest emotion she evokes through her songwriting, nothing could be further from the truth. When the applause subsided and she finally had a chance to speak, she greeted her adoring audience: "I though it might be a good idea to play a song from every album I've done ... but that's not gonna happen." She was met with more applause and some laughter, which would be repeated several times over the course of the evening.

She did, however, open her set with a nugget from her very first album, 1972's Whatever's For Us:  "City Girl" instantly thrilled and elated an already engaged audience comprised mostly of female fans. As a single spotlight shone on Joan and the video screen displayed different images of city skylines and landscapes, she instantly reminded concertgoers of what it is that really makes her so special: her confessional, personal lyrics and that voice, that rich, husky, emotive vocal range that has been her trademark throughout her long career. And it hasn't lost a single drop of its resonance. Armatrading sounded fresh and inspired as she delivered her impressive career overview of songs and plucked out some pretty impressive guitar work along the way.

"Since this is a long tour, this is my 137th or 138th gig...," she recalled, "I'm going have to cut this show short so, this will be my last song ... but thank you!" she joked after completing her second selection. Again, the crowd chuckled before settling in for more of her stunning artistry. 

Of her many gifts, dabbling in so many different genres successfully might be one of her most impressive. Her solemn solo piano delivery of "More Than One Kind of Love" took on a gospel feel. And she tackled folk, pop, jazz, blues and rock n' roll over the course of the night, too. Not an easy feat to accomplish. 

Sporting an almost invisible headset microphone, Joan commanded the rapt audience for the duration of the program. With some prerecorded accompaniment at times (as a disclaimer on the video screen warned at the onset of the show), Joan's commanding delivery of "All The Way From America" was augmented by a piped in string section. But, in all honesty, she didn't need the added track. She stood and held her own the whole night, proving her worth as a solo performer.

A short break came when Armatrading flashed a series of snapshots documenting her career on the screen and added some colorful, insightful and hilarious commentary throughout. Career highlights, clothing styles and anecdotes were shared with sharp wit and engaging banter.

Career-defining tune "Love and Affection" (which she'd jokingly said earlier in the program she would not play) was met with plenty of applause and elation. If Joan Armatrading's style, approach and flair had to be described in one single song, it'd have to be this one. From the 1976 self-titled album that put her on the musical map, the song is still as powerful and stirring as ever. And for those who sang along to every lyric and passionately swayed to the beat, it surely hasn't lost any of its meaning.

She wrapped up with the reggae lilt of "Rosie" and the infectious pop of "Drop the Pilot" and the anthemic "Me Myself I," which featured some mean, distorted, screaming electric guitar work that would've made Jimi Hendrix proud. But she didn't depart before getting a few more laughs, this time about how traditional encores usually play out at rock shows: "You've all been to concerts before, right?" she chided. Joan walked us through the scenario of the artist leaving the stage, being bombarded by cheers and applause, and then returning to the stage to play another song. "I'm going to do that, but instead, I'm just going to stand here" she said as she stayed planted at the lip of the stage and soaked in all the love and affection the crowd had left to bestow.

Ending with tender ballad "Willow" (from 1977's Show Some Emotion), Armatrading encouraged those who knew the words to sing along with the chorus. As many took her up on her request, an almost somber tone filled the room, most of us realizing this might be the last time we'd get to enjoy hearing such a truly original and inimitable artist perform live.

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
Tall in the Saddle
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
My Myself I