Judge Bill Gibron can step out with the best of 'em.
A future icon gets a shaky start in the public eye.
Before there was Alicia Keyes or India.Arie, before we learned about the misadventures of Lauryn Hill or rode around in fast cars with Tracy Chapman, there was Joan Armatrading. A certified '70s pioneer, this British West Indian performer shunned the typical soul and R&B arena many thought she would inhabit to tackle a fiery fusion of folk, jazz, blues, and rock. Often positioned as "the next big thing" by the adoring UK press, she received a significant commercial boost when her 1980 album Me, Myself, I hit the international music scene (and pop charts). A few years in the limelight, and it was back to smoky clubs and cult status. Captured as part of the seminal German concert showcase Rockpalast ("Rock Palace"), this interesting performance finds Armatrading working through some of her newer material, as well as revisiting favorites of her then touring set list. The results are uneven to say they least, considering the strength of the material and the often off-kilter facets of the delivery.
For those interested in the specific songs featured, here is a list:
"Mama Mercy"—from the 1977 album Show Some Emotion
Live music has its benefits and its detriments, and for anyone unfamiliar with Armatrading and her unique brand of genre synthesis, Steppin' Out may not be the best initial showcase. The Rockpalast audience is certainly geared up for a great show, offering nothing but support and enthusiasm and the backing band does an excellent job of maintain a sense of intimacy while delivering the occasional anthemic rock moves. The problem here—and it's a very minor one at that—is Armatrading herself. She's not in the best voice during this concert, the cracks clearly showing when she tackles anything from Me Myself I. The title track is often undermined by the sheepish singing. Similarly, by the time she gets to "When You Kisses Me" we're used to the occasional missed note.
Oddly, it doesn't happen consistently. At the beginning, she is so strong, so moving, that you wonder why the newer songs fluster her so. "Down to Zero" is amazing, as is "I Really Must Be Going." Once she gets past "Ma-Me-O Beach," "Love and Affection" and "How Cruel" are sensational. Maybe it's a lack of familiarity with the material (Armatrading does mention that the band will be running through some currently unreleased tracks), but her voice is so confident on "You Rope You Tie Me" and "Tall in the Saddle" that is doesn't seem logical. By the end of the relatively short set (a little more than a hour), we feel like we've witnessed an incomplete portrait of Armatrading. Me Myself I would go on to establish her wannabe diva credentials, and the Steve Lillywhite produced follow-up, Walk Under Ladders, would secure her place as part of the free for all inclusive creative backdrop known as New Wave. Too bad the inconsistent nature of this show fails to fully illustrate Armatrading's promise.
Another problem here is the presentation. This is old school analog video vamped up for a DVD digital release, and the results are mediocre. There is obvious interlacing, the conversion to NTSC producing more than a few problems. We've also got flaring, bleeding, and some limited signal defects. Unlike the sound, which has been remastered into a decent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (the standard stereo 2.0 is also available), the 1.33:1 full screen image is unexceptional. As for added content, we are treated to a 10 minute interview segment from the same show that provides some insight into Armatrading's past, her approach to music, and her plans for the future. It might just be the best part of this DVD—aside from the songs themselves.
For anyone who has followed Armatrading since her splash in the late '70s, Steppin' Out will be both a revelation and a trial. Rarely touring the states, seeing her play live is a treat. Those hoping for a definitive performance, however, will be disappointed.
A hung jury.
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