Irish rockabilly singer Imelda May dazzles with 13-song set at Pianos in New York

Until Michael Buble makes his Elvis tribute album, Imelda May will likely remain the contemporary singer with the best chance of selling rockabilly music to soccer moms.

That’s not a diss: May, a native Dubliner with a great voice and even greater look, doesn’t present herself as some kind of hardcore rock-a-betty genre artist. It’s a safe bet there’s no hotrod in her garage, and she’s not angling for a slice of the Horrorpops’ teenaged fan base.

May approaches rockabilly much as Norah Jones does jazz, making ’50s rock ’n’ roll — not to mention vintage blues, country and torchy jazz — palatable for middle-aged listeners. To May’s credit, her sound is rocking enough that she just might just win some younger converts along the way.

In fact, a roomful of 20-something folks came out Tuesday night to see May and her backing quartet perform at Pianos on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

The singer’s 13 songs ranged from straight-up Wanda Jackson-style rockabilly and country to lowdown blues and swanky swing tunes. Here are five reasons May’s set justified going out on a work night:

1. She’s got the look: The first thing you notice about Imelda May is her style. From the blonde streaks in her jet-black femme-pompadour hairdo to her snug, cuffed jeans and vintage heels, the singer exudes ’50s-era sex appeal. Somehow, she does the Vargas-girl thing without coming across as a cartoon character — a testament, perhaps, to the fact that she operates outside the conventional, predictable rockabilly scene.

2. She’s got the blues: Before coming to New York City, May and her band stopped in Chicago, where the musicians visited the legendary Chess Records office and studio. May told the Pianos audience that she was thrilled to learn how some of her favorite songs were recorded, and she followed her story with the bluesy “Poor Boy,” a fine showcase for her guttural faux-American growl.

3. Reverence for the King: At one point in the show, May said something about her mother speaking to the “main man above.” “Elvis?” someone shouted from the front row. May smiled and gave the perfect response: “No, not Elvis. He’s still alive.” May didn’t play any Presley covers, sadly, but her more ’50s-style offerings were the sort of songs the King cut for RCA before heading to Germany, discovering pills and beginning the granddaddy of all celebrity death spirals.

4. Reverence for the Beatles: Forced to choose, May would undoubtedly take Elvis over the Beatles, but the Irish singer’s retro sensibility proved a perfect match for “Oh! Darling,” an “Abbey Road” gem she reworked as a mean jazz-a-billy burner.

5. Surf’s Up: “Watcha Gonna Do,” a standout from May’s debut, “Love Tattoo,” was easily the hardest-rocking song in Tuesday’s set. With its sinister trumpet riff and pulpy surf-guitar licks, the song showed May to be more than just an adult-contemporary artist in pin-up-girl clothing.

— Text and photo by Kenneth Partridge

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