Imelda May’s Tribal Music

By Barry Fisch

Imelda May, Bowery Ballroom, Tribal, Rockabilly

[A]lthough Imelda May’s new album, Tribal, drops today, the audience at her July stop at New York’s Bowery Ballroom was already familiar with it. “I was surprised because the album isn’t out here until September,” May said just after the show. “It’s great—people are singing along already.” Such is the ardor of May’s tribe.

With her trademark big front roll curl hairstyle, sporting a black and white striped dress and wearing a necklace with a skull hanging in the center, May and her band gave Bowery Ballroom a mighty 90-minute set incorporating songs from her entire career, opening with the title tune from Tribal.

“I wanted to write that song for a while,” May said. “It’s just from observing how people are, really. We all think we’re so advanced with all our high tech but, basically, we’re still back in the dark ages sometimes. We’re still instinctive and tribal. If you look at music, style, what kind of car people have, where you live, or sports with people waving flags and chanting their own chants, it’s all still tribal—and I think it’s great! It’s great that you find people you feel that camaraderie with and you feel that your tribe is way better than everybody else’s tribe. Everyone has a chance to find their own tribe. It’s a natural thing.”

Imelda May, Bowery Ballroom, Tribal, Rockabilly

After May finished “Tribal” and carried on through her set, it was easy to see that she was happy to be back on the road performing for her tribe (she even said so from the stage). Throughout, May offered up selections from both Tribal, of course, and albums past. “I like each album to be a progression from the last,” she said. “There’s no point to it if you don’t try and improve what you do. You try and push yourself. On Tribal, I explored more. I still have the same loves, but I’ve tapped into different ones for different albums. This one, I wanted to tap more into my early, raw rockabilly feel, and also my punk influences. They have a similar energy. I wanted to get that raw energy that we have at a gig and try to capture that on the album.”

However, you’d think that keeping up that raw energy on the road is more of a challenge when you have your family with you. May’s guitarist, Darrel Higham, is also her husband, and their baby daughter, Violet, also is travelling with them. “She’s almost two now and she’s having a great time,” May said. “Other than lack of sleep for me, it’s great.”

Imelda May, Bowery Ballroom, Tribal, Rockabilly

In raising her daughter, touring and recording, May has proven herself to be an exceptionally strong woman in a business that is still only in the process of becoming more female-friendly. “When I started in music, 24 years ago, there weren’t that many women in music,” May said. “I looked up to incredible women who were strong in music and in life also. It was tough for them to be in what was then such a male-dominated business. There wasn’t a battle between the sexes, it was just mostly men. A man’s world on the road, you had to roughen up your edges a little bit. Certainly in Wanda Jackson’s time, women were happy enough just to sing beautifully and look good. But to be writing the material, or to be gigging it and touring and singing like a wild woman; of course I look up to women like this. For me, I love producing and writing my own songs. I used to get asked questions like, ‘Does your husband help you write your songs?’ Like, you can sing but you couldn’t possible have written and produced them! And I couldn’t understand why not. Since becoming a mother I have a reinforced love for what women do and have done over history, raising families.”

Back at Bowery Ballroom, “It’s Good to Be Alive,” a bluesy number featuring excellent guitar work from Higham, was a highlight of the show, and certainly seemed to represent May’s frame of mind at the moment. Later, an acoustic cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming” served as the encore—appropriate for a New York crowd on the Bowery, fitting given May’s sense of female empowerment and wholly pleasing to her tribe.


Imelda May will be back in New York performing at the Paramount in Huntington on September 28 and at Irving Plaza on September 29

Photos by Jim Belmont

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