Imelda May’s Merry Hellraising

Imelda May w/ The Rhythm Shakers

Oct.  9, 2014

The Fillmore, San Francisco

You can’t quite tell what Imelda May is up to, but whatever it is, it works.

The Irish quasi-rockabilly singer-songwriter played The Fillmore Thursday to an enthusiastic crowd (many of the audience had previously seen her at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival in August and were back for more), and May rode that enthusiasm into a simple blast of a set.

A Dublin native, May began singing in clubs at age 16, and it shows – her comfort on stage is obviously elemental to her person. She wore a snugly fitting dress cut in a style that the mind tends to associate with the 1950s, and her hair involved both a long ponytail and an elaborate curl tightly wound right at the hairline (this ‘do appears to be her trademark).

To see her perform is to see something ambiguously old-fashioned, and it’s so enchanting that you don’t worry about the specifics. It’s as though decades-long stretches of musical history have been swept up, compressed, and gleefully shredded into her songs. At first it’s irresistible to grasp for a genre, any genre – blues, rockabilly, jazz – to contextualize what May’s doing, but then it becomes clearer that such mental efforts would be effectively futile, and a very foolish waste of one’s time. May is not bending a genre so much as she is dismissing it as an issue.

Imelda May © Tom Dellinger

This was exceedingly evident when, about halfway through the set, May brought out a bohdrán – an Irish frame drum associated by many with ancient Celtic tribes – and pounded it solemnly for a few minutes before leaping into the suavely jolly “It’s Good To Be Alive.”

May’s band is a supportive one, and the all-male ensemble have an air of adoring discipleship about them (although this assessment may be colored by the knowledge that the band contains May’s husband, Darrel Higham, who plays guitar). Their instrumental aptitude is what May’s songs deserve, but it occasionally had the unfortunate effect of dulling May’s covertly formidable voice, which is consistently rich and warm in the ears.

For this reason, it was a pleasant surprise to hear the first two songs of May’s encore – both were covers (Cher and Blondie), and both solely consisted of May’s vocals and bassist Al Gare’s quiet ukulele.

But this show wouldn’t dare end with a whimper, even a lovely one. Before she left The Fillmore, May played two more artfully raucous songs, to the delight of her dancing fans. To close, she sang a song called “Right Amount Of Wrong,” but it was hard to imagine – in that space on that night – that the woman could do wrong if she tried.

Set List: Tribal | Wild Woman | Big Bad Handsome Man | Wicked Way | Five Good Men | Hellfire Club | Go Tell The Devil | [Instrumental] | It’s Good To Be Alive | Ghost Of Love | Gypsy In Me | Meet You At The Moon | Road Runner | Inside Out | Round the Bend | Psycho | Mayhem | Johnny Got A Boom Boom

Encore: Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) [Cher cover] | Dreaming [Blondie cover] | Pulling the Rug | Right Amount Of Wrong