Imelda May caused a stir this year when she appeared on the Grammys singing "How High the Moon" in a tribute to the great Les Paul. Here was an unknown newcomer nearly stealing the spotlight from legendary guitarist Jeff Beck with her flashy style and expert vocals.
But May is an overnight sensation only in the immediate temporal sense: Otherwise, she's a veteran. The Dublin-born, London-based singer has performed in bands (the rootsy Blue Harlem) and burlesque shows for 20 years. Love Tattoo, her debut solo album, is an exhilarating blend of rockabilly, jump blues, and country crooning. It arrived here last year, a year after it came out in England. Everything about May seems retro.
When she and her husband, guitarist Darrell Higham, made the album, she didn't necessarily expect it to reach a wide audience.
"I knew I had a great band, and I'd written a lot of songs that were getting good reactions as we were playing them. I just thought, well, we'll sell them at the gigs," May says on the phone from New York, where she just arrived to participate with Jeff Beck in a pair of Les Paul/ Mary Ford tribute shows and then to begin a tour opening for him.
"I was just itching to make this album. However, my influences are, obviously, rockabilly, blues, jazz, a bit of country, and very traditional Irish as well, very rootsy. The reaction I was getting from a lot of people was 'Ditch the rockabilly. You'll get nowhere; rockabilly will be the kiss of death.' That angered me almost, and made me more convicted to carry on with it and keep it in there. For a music that's been so influential to the music we all enjoy now, why is it so shunned or pushed aside?"
Love Tattoo isn't solely a rockabilly rush. Sure, May growls like Wanda Jackson ("Johnny Got a Boom Boom"), but she also purrs like Julie London ("Knock 123") and swoons like Patsy Cline ("Falling in Love With You Again").
On Wednesday, she will perform at Johnny Brenda's in what for May is an increasingly rare club date.
"We get to open for Jeff Beck and do huge, big shows, and we just finished a short tour of Ireland and a good tour of England as well, and over there the venues are getting very big. But I love the chance to do smaller clubs again. There's nothing like a small, sweaty club to have a good night in."