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Union Joan

England's Joan Armatrading comes to town with her fanciful folk music

No one's quite sure why Briton Joan Armatrading would visit this part of the planet and perform for us ungrateful bastards. The woman has played before royalty, dignitaries and world leaders. Her albums are highly regarded by Europeans as vital, important works of the female aesthetic in popular music the world over. She has been commended for her social activism and involvement with various charitable organizations. Yet Joan Armatrading remains a no-name here.

Perhaps she just enjoys the art of performing. Perhaps she is aware of the cult of stateside fans that does appreciate her music, and feels like it needs to pay her gratitude whenever she's near. Perhaps Armatrading wants to show all of us Yanks what we've been missing all these years. Although it may seem unlikely, the fact that these might be Armatrading's last days performing on this side of the pond is real. She's 49 now, and it's not like anyone -- especially those to whom we look for cultural guidance -- has been paying much friggin' attention. In the hefty-ass Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, Armatrading is mentioned only once, and that's in passing. Of course Armatrading, strong and independent before independent was cool, isn't at home sulking over the dis -- though some of her fans may be.

As mentioned above, Armatrading is close to an international treasure. Her intimate brand of urban folk, occasionally melded with R&B, reggae and African rhythms, has made fans and (some) critics recognize her as the queen of acoustic-based pop songwriters. Not Tracy Chapman. Not Lucinda Williams. Not Jewel. But Armatrading. The singer's trek toward this position of global respectability and renown has been long. Born in 1950 in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts, West Indies, Armatrading moved with her family, consisting of her parents and two older brothers, to England when she was three. There, the family left young Joan to live with her grandparents. At the age of seven, she was reunited with her family in the all-white neighborhoods of Birmingham. Culture shock and homesickness were probably what led her to teach herself the guitar and work out her emotions through songwriting.

Being a female singer-songwriter before female singer-songwriters were all the rage, Joan Armatrading is in the picture of bad timing.
Kate Garner
Being a female singer-songwriter before female singer-songwriters were all the rage, Joan Armatrading is in the picture of bad timing.

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As a young lady, she began performing in local bands and in a regional production of the musical Hair, where she struck up a songwriting partnership with singer/actress Pam Nestor. Their creative union was cut short; they parted ways before the music they collaborated on garnered any attention. Most of their songs ended up in a publishing house, where they eventually caught the attention of Elton John's producer Gus Dudgeon. In 1971, after discovering the lost tunes and liking what he had found, Dudgeon decided to give the introverted guitar player a shot at the big time.

When Armatrading signed to A&M Records in 1972, she was greeted with skepticism from company brass. As a black Englishwoman who believed talent was more important than image, Armatrading appeared to be, in A&M insiders' eyes, "a bad investment." While some mistook her painful shyness for icy arrogance (she was branded with the nickname "Joan Armaplating"), her producers -- Dudgeon, Pete Gage, Glyn Johns and Richard Gottehrer -- stuck by her and nurtured her talents.

Armatrading released her first album, Whatever's for Us, in 1972 to the usual batch of critical acclaim and lukewarm album sales. The same could be said for her second album, 1975's Back to the Night. But her self-titled third album in 1976 was a breakout success, showing that this bad investment had some power to attract new listeners after all. Joan Armatrading's eponymous work cracked the UK Top 20 and spawned a Top Ten hit with the single "Love and Affection," a rolling number of romantic determination highlighted by Armatrading's stimulating vocal range.

Other successful albums followed, including 1977's Show Some Emotion, 1980's all-electric Me, Myself, I (which was really anything but, as the album featured appearances from the E Street Band's Clarence Clemons, and Paul Shaffer and future members of the Late Show with David Letterman orchestra) and 1981's Walk Under Ladders. In 1979 Armatrading co-produced an EP titled How Cruel but didn't begin fully producing her own material until her 1986 album, Sleight of Hand. Since then, Armatrading has been the sole producer on all her albums. Although she hasn't made an album of original songs since 1995's What's Inside (the following year, greatest hits compilations were released here and in the UK), she has found ways to bide her time. A longtime peace advocate and supporter of many charities, she has performed in concerts for Amnesty International, the Prince's Trust and the WOMAD Festival. In 1998 she received an honorary doctorate from John Moores University. That same year, she compiled a benefit CD for PACES, a British-based charity for children with cerebral palsy, called Lullabies with a Difference. Released only overseas, the album included tracks from Armatrading, the Cranberries, Melissa Etheridge and Mark Knopfler. Her most recent work is a song called "The Messenger," a gospel/African-flavored tribute to Nelson Mandela. It hasn't been released in stores anywhere, but it can be accessed through that most popular of Internet audio contraptions, MP3, at her Web site, www.joanarmatrading.com.

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