Joan Armatrading's concerts have always been even better than her fine records, and Tuesday night's appearance at Wolf Trap proved no exception, winning one ovation after another from the capacity crowd. It was recognition long overdue for the 35-year-old British songwriter, who has never had an American hit despite being one of the very best singers of her generation.
In recent years, Armatrading has moved purposefully from her early folk-soul arrangements toward a hard-hitting techno-rock sound, and that new sound, backed by a tight dance-rock quintet, dominated Tuesday's show -- perhaps too much. Her songs have always cut to the essence of romantic relationships, and she used the aggressive arrangements to make her points that much more forcefully. Nonetheless, the highlights were the slower songs like "Love and Affection" and "The Weakness in Me," in which the jazz flavors of bassist Jeremy Meek and keyboardist Alex White were most effective. On those songs, Armatrading's feline voice had a chance to stretch, purr and hiss.
Graham Nash's opening set was full of jingly melodies and high ideals, but as always, proved too sweet and lightweight to matter much. Most disturbingly, he performed with a live guitarist and a live keyboardist but with prerecorded rhythm tracks -- yet another ominous erosion of the concept of live music.