Looking like an Old Testament preacher on a festive jolly, Guggi was sitting next to me on Friday night at The 02 in Dublin. The artist smiled quixotically at me when I told him what was about to happen next was the worst-kept secret in Ireland.
Then, seconds later, Guggi’s best friend, a messianic fella by the name of Bono, joined headliner Imelda May and her band onstage for an audacious version of Desire by his band U2 (the rumour that Larry Mullen was to play drums proved unfounded).
The 12,000 crowd went mental. Harry Crosbie, who owns the venue, had told me earlier in the bar that tonight “we would be witnessing a magical piece of rock ‘n’ roll history — it was 23 years ago that U2 filmed music for the movie Desire in this building”.
When Bono and Imelda did another duet together — a suitably festive and out-of-kilter version of Phil Spector’s Christmas: Baby Please Come Home — everyone, including Guggi beside me and doubtless Harry elsewhere, was up on their feet dancing the recession away.
But this was Imelda May’s night. It is some achievement that the beautiful belle from the Liberties in Dublin sold out Friday and again last night at the country’s biggest venue. Wearing a tight-fitting silver dress that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Marilyn Monroe, she held the audience in thrall for a good two hours with her sassy blend of retro cool, surf guitars and rockabilly with a razor’s edge.
The music throughout, courtesy of Imelda’s bewitching voice, was evocative of what you’d hear in a David Lynch film. I could see why Rolling Stone described her as exuding “the dangerous allure of a Fifties pulp pin-up, the kind with race-car red lips and a dagger in her boot”.
A bluesy rendition of Spoonful by the Chicago bluesman Hubert Sumlin (who only died on December 4) was followed by Psycho, Tear It Up and Big Bad Handsome Man, with her own big bad handsome man, husband Darrel Higham, on guitar beside her.
“The music he plays, the way he moves me and sways,” she sang. “Rocks me to the core/When he sings in my ear/He makes me shiver and leer/Leaves me wanting more and more.”
It was the sentiment of the audience watching her perform, too. She has bona fide star quality; the authenticity of her music emphasises that star quality.
Ireland’s First Lady of Rockabilly isn’t anything you could remotely call manufactured. She isn’t pretending to be Wanda Jackson or Patsy Cline or Billie Holiday. She only knows how to be one thing and that’s herself.
She charms the crowd almost as much with her raw Dublin girl lingo as she does with her songs that have charmed everyone from Jools Holland to Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck to Van Morrison.
Imelda will be making steps (with a dagger in her boot or not) to the Forum in Waterford tomorrow, the INEC in Killarney on Thursday and the Big Top in Limerick on Friday.
Impossibly hip Irish band The Last Tycoon are the (very) special guests on the last two shows.
“We’re delighted to be asked to open for Imelda again,” Tycoons frontman Stephen Fanning told me — he and his band flew specially from their base in Berlin for the gigs.
“We played with her in Berlin last May and after seeing us, she invited us on the rest of her German tour, which was amazing. She’s been really supportive of us and her fans were great to us as well,” Stephen said, before adding that the hotly tipped group have their own headline show in the Workman’s Club in Dublin on December 28 with a new album on the way in 2012.
Now that will be mayhem.
- Barry Egan