Whenever I make the mistake of listening to one of those radio stations that promises to play music from the 1980s I end up feeling horribly confused. How is it that I barely recognize any of the music they play? Where, I wonder, are they finding the stuff they call the "hits of the '80s" and what happened to any of the music I listened to? Sure, some of the stuff was pretty obscure, but quite a bit of it wouldn't be out of place in today's market, and the folk who played it are still around and recording. Yet somehow they seem to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to being remembered for what they did 30 years ago.
Sure there's always the possibility that my memory could be clouded by sentimentality and stuff that I remember fondly wasn't actually as good as I think it is. Still, the Clash records I listen to today sound just as good as they did 30 years ago, so why shouldn't other stuff that I liked back then? So when I found out that Eagle Rock Entertainment was releasing a DVD of a concert Joan Armatrading gave back in 1980 I was excited. I remembered really liking her back in the early 1980s, especially the two albums that came out in 1980 and 1982, Me, Myself I and Walk Under Ladders. So I figured Joan Armatrading: Steppin' Out, being released on February 23, 2010, would capture some of the same magic I remembered enjoying on those two releases.
The concert was originally filmed for the German television concert series Rockpalast, which from past experience has proven to be a source of some of the better concert discs I've seen. So I knew there would be nothing to worry about when it came to the technical quality of the disc in spite of the fact the concert took place 30 years ago. Sure enough, the sound and picture quality are great, with sound being re-mastered to modern specifications giving viewers the option of either DTS digital surround sound, Dolby 5.1 surround, or Dolby stereo.
With the performance taking place shortly after the release of Armatrading's Me, Myself I, the concert features songs from that album including the title track, "Me Myself I", "Down To Zero", "Mama Mercy", and "Kissin' And A Huggin". What I remember liking so much about Armatrading's studio albums was, unlike others, her recordings always seemed able to capture the intense energy that made her songs so compelling. Even her slower, more romantic ballads, "Love And Affection" for example, had the capacity to hold your attention through the way they captured the strength of her emotional commitment to her material. So I was looking forward to seeing her caught live in concert. Hoping, that like others, her energy would be even greater live that it was in her studio recordings.
Unfortunately, whether it was because something about the recording failed to capture her performance, she was having an off night, or my memories of her weren't accurate, her overall performance seemed quite flat. The exuberance that one might have expected her to show singing songs which on the studio releases had been up-tempo and exciting just wasn't there. Oh, the tempo was right, and the performance put on by her and her band was technically fine, it just seemed to be lacking in the soul that had been present on the studio albums.
Something that contributed to that feeling was the lack of connection between her and the rest of the band. While they were all in perfect time and playing together, they gave the weirdest impression of being a collection of individuals who just happened to be playing the same song at the same time, rather than a unit working together to create a performance. Perhaps they had only just started their tour and were still working on building chemistry, but it felt like watching people working in a studio who were only focused on laying down their tracks rather than giving a performance.
However, in spite of this, there can be no doubting Armatrading's talent. Not only were her songs well written, but she was a great singer with an expressive voice that had a far greater range than you'd expect from a popular singer. On top of that she was also an interesting guitar player, not content with merely strumming her instrument, but introducing neat flourishes into her songs and emphasizing moments with neat bits of staccato playing. All of this is made very clear while watching her on this DVD. In fact I couldn't help comparing her with the current crop of female singers making their way up either the R&B, soul, or pop charts, and she was head and shoulders above anybody I've heard since.
The DVD includes a post-concert interview conducted by the host of the television show, so naturally it's partially in German and English as he has to maintain a running translation for his audience. Unfortunately it does mean there's little of consequence said, so don't go looking for any deep insights into Armatrading's career in this one. Ironically, during the interview is when you get a glimpse of the joyful energy, which had been missing from the performance, that had made Armatrading's studio albums such a pleasure. There's a sparkle in her eye and far more life in her voice than had been on view during the show.
While the DVD Joan Armatrading; Steppin' Out doesn't do her justice in some ways as it fails to capture the power and energy of her music that could be heard on her studio albums, it will at least give viewers a chance to experience her music if they've never had the opportunity, and provides a retrospective of some of the best songs from that period in her career. Hopefully it will provide enough incentive for people to go back and check out some of her original albums, and maybe even pick up a copy of her new release. She was a very soulful and talented singer 30 years ago, and if she's managed to even just hold onto what she had back then, she'll be twice the performer any of today's so-called talent could dream of being.