Joan Armatrading @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25 Sep

Sadly backing tracks accompany the vast majority of tonight's performance, often muddying and distracting from Joan Armatrading's fantastic songs which deserved more

Live Review by Harry Harris | 27 Sep 2018

A strange old gig at the Usher Hall tonight. Everything seems fine and normal at first – a sparse stage filled with a couple of acoustic guitars, a keyboard and a grand piano, suggesting we're going to get an evening of Joan Armatrading stripping her catalogue back to just herself. When she enters – to fairly rapturous applause from the crowd, many of whom we'd bet aren't seeing her for the first time – she explains that the first set will be a start-to-finish play of her new album Not Too Far Away, followed by her older material in the second. Again, all fine! But then the gig starts and we aren't as alone as we may have initially thought.

Joan Armatrading is one of Britain's greatest songwriters, let's get that out of the way first, and listening to her new record all the way through is absolutely not the chore it would be with some artists. Still Waters feels like one of her best, a smartly put together pop song with an almost Graceland-era Paul Simon feel. This Is Not That, the penultimate song of the album (and indeed, the first half) is clearly already a fan favourite. Her voice is still completely unique, her guitar playing rarely misses a beat and had the gig just been that – guitar and voice, or piano and voice – it would have been better. As it is, backing tracks accompany the vast majority of songs in both halves, which feels like a very odd choice.

Backing tracks aren't an inherently bad thing, of course, but for whatever reason, it feels like the tracks being played along to aren't those used on the studio recordings. Heavy, hollow synths and shakers are near-constant, meaning they end up sounding more like karaoke versions of Joan Armatrading songs. When the backing tracks mimick that of a full band – bass, drums, additional pianos, synths – the overall effect combined with the parts Armatrading is playing live it becomes a little muddy and somewhat distracting.

Unsurprisingly, it's the songs making little use of backing tracks that are the real highlights. Down to Zero opens the second half, and on a guitar, you can appreciate just how much the song is doing. Ditto Drop the Pilot, which admittedly does use a backing track to play the infectiously joyous opening riff but drops it for the remainder of the song – that song is three bar chords all the way through and yet never feels boring or lethargic. When she returns to the grand piano to play The Weakness in Me during the encore you wonder why that song hasn't become a complete pop standard – beautiful and painful and so interesting and brilliant. To watch it performed like it is tonight is a real privilege. All her songs would work in that stripped-back format so it's a shame that's not the direction tonight's show took as the gig would have been far better for it. 

The thing about a bad backing track is it makes you wish for a good band to replace it. A band would have allowed the arrangements to flourish, allowed Armatrading more flexibility as a performer, and also allowed her to showcase her peerless lead guitar playing – something we sadly only get to see snippets of in this format. Her songs are still fantastic, but they deserved more.