Friday, June 15, Barrymore Theatre, 8 pm
Joan Armatrading doesn't need any more kudos. Particularly in the U.K. Once the Queen of England has made you a member of the royal order of the British Empire in recognition of your cultural contributions, you've pretty much reached the pinnacle. And frankly, with MBE in hand, you can afford to rest on your laurels.
To her credit, the deep-voiced folk-rocker hasn't. Sure, Armatrading still fills out live sets with reworkings of "Down to Zero," "Show Some Emotion," "Drop the Pilot" and other material from her halcyon days in the '70s and early '80s. They're rich, passionate tunes, and they deserve to be performed again and again. However, the fact that Armatrading remains a creative artist to the core is evidenced by her latest CD, Into the Blues. As the title indicates, it's an exploration of her relationship with the blues.
One of the most startling things about the album is Armatrading's guitar playing. She was always a strong player. Her guitars were never props. In the '70s, her regular use of electric instruments made a bold statement about the emergence of a new kind of female artist who wasn't content to purr into a microphone and look pretty for the gents. But on Into Blues her fretwork is by turns tough, wistful and remarkably passionate. Frankly, the spare single-note lines that color the simmering Robert Cray-style groove "Woman in Love" couldn't be improved on. Armatrading is that dialed-in here.
Better still, she isn't offering some kind of tradition-bound homage to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and the other American legends whose work has influenced her own playing. At her core, Armatrading remains a folk-rock artist, and it comes as no surprise that straight blues tunes are deftly broken up with excursions into light soul, funk, reggae and hard-strummed folk. Some of the themes she touches upon will be familiar to anyone who's spent a few hours with a classic blues album (empty highways, lovers who've moved on). But even when she's working with time-honored blues tropes, she modifies them with direct, poetic language that has its roots in folk-rock and the singer-songwriter tradition. She is definitely not trapped by the form.
Is Into the Blues Armatrading's greatest artistic achievement? I wouldn't say so. The music she produced in her youth was very powerful stuff. But it's a remarkable effort, and I expect she'll add much more of that sure-handed guitar work to these songs in concert.