Imelda May radiates light when she’s on stage–and not just because of her bright red lipstick. The Irish rockabilly singer brought an ebullient grace to her set last Monday at Irving Plaza, beginning with the immaculate-as-always platinum blonde quiff set on top of her dark ponytail, and ending with the nuggets of adorable stage banter that peppered her set. “I want to thank The Bellfuries,” she said at one point, referring to the opening act, “because I’m, like, a huge fan of theirs–a follow-them-around-and-carry-their-bags kind of fan–and I hope I get the chance to open for them one day.”
It makes sense that she would make a special point to spotlight her opening band–May knows what it’s like to take the long road to success. As a young singer gigging around her hometown of Dublin, May had eclectic tastes, but always had a penchant for bluesy vocalists like Wanda Jackson. Her only training came from listening to the performers that she loved. Today, May’s many terrific covers–like “Tainted Love” on the 2010 album Mayhem–testify to how deeply those old records have sunk into her sound. In fact, the two encores she played without her band on Monday night were both covers: intimate, dramatic renditions of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and Blondie’s “Dreaming,” accompanied by ukelele.
Complete with cat eyes and a soul-singer piano bench perch, May slipped into the persona of the rock ‘n’ roll songstress as easily as if it were her favorite vintage sundress . But she rotated the spotlight between her bandmates, too, ushering her upright bass player, Al Gare, to the front of the stage for the bass-heavy number “Johnny Got A Boom Boom,” and flashing frequent smiles in the direction of her guitarist Darrel Higham, whom she married in 2002.
Most of the songs May performed that night came off of her new album Tribal, and, while just as energetic and old-school catchy as her previously released material, their themes tended towards joy over the gleeful darkness of older singles like the title track of Mayhem. More than ever, her performance felt celebratory. As evidenced in the bubbly and–even more than usual–aesthetically retro single “It’s Good To Be Alive,” May has plateaued in fun-loving rock ‘n’ roll stardom with ease and obvious delight.