October 26, 2015 Joe Jackson Looks Sharp in NYC 10-21-15
English Singer-Songwriter Joe Jackson has become a bit of a troubadour. Now sustaining a career over four decades, he records and plays the music that he wants to make. Much to the excitement of long-time followers, on Wednesday, October 21st, Jackson made an appearance at New York City’s Town Hall. On tour in support of his newest album, Fast Forward, it would be Jackson’s first appearances at The Town Hall since he played there in September 2012.
During his career, Jackson has gone from the angry young New Wave rocker to introspective Jazz influenced performer. The change came not necessarily gradually, but rather it was always inside Jackson, it just had to emerge or rather re-emerge. Jackson, who was originally lumped together with Graham Parker and Elvis Costello as an angry British singer/songwriter, did originally achieve success with energetic Punk/New Wave after becoming enamored by the simple yet energetic and aggressive music and lyrics. Jackson was a sort of music prodigy. He learned how to play the violin at age eleven. He later became adept on timpani and oboe. He then learned how to play piano after his parents bought him a second-hand instrument when he was a teenager. He began taking piano lessons and became interested in Jazz and Classical Music as well as Pop. At sixteen, he formed a Jazz trio and began playing in pubs.
In the early ’70s, Jackson became a fan of Prog Rock. At the same time, he began attending the Royal Academy of Music in London. He also began playing in a band called Edward Bear, later called Edwin Bear, and finally Arms and Legs. When Arms and Legs broke-up, its bassist, Graham Maby, and drummer, Dave Houghton, joined Jackson in The Joe Jackson band. Eventually Gary Sanford was added on guitar. In 1978, Jackson was signed to A&M Records and recorded his debut album. Look Sharp! was released in 1979 and Jackson became an overnight success with “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” The album reached the Billboard Top 20 in the United States. Jackson and his band toured constantly. Somehow, he managed to quickly record his second LP, 1979’s I’m The Man, which many critics felt was a continuation to Look Sharp!.
It was at this point that Jackson began making some interesting changes. The follow-up to 1980’s I’m The Man was Beat Crazy. Beat Crazy leaned less on the frantic Rock -n-Roll that characterized his first two releases. Instead, it leaned more on Reggae, Dub and Ska influences.
After touring behind Beat Crazy, Jackson’s health took a bit of a turn. He spent a lot of time at home and began listening to a lot of 1940s Jump Blues. His next record was 1981’s Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive. The album was ahead of its time, predating the neo-swing movement by at least twenty years. Following the Jumpin’ Jive tour, Jackson got divorced and found himself listening to Salsa, Gershwin, Cole Porter and their contemporaries. In 1982, he released Night And Day (A&M Records), which was chock-full of Jazz-Pop. He was transforming, but he was not finished just yet.
Other releases along the way included Body & Soul (A&M Records, 1984), which featured more Jazz-Pop, but with more of an R&B influence. Big World, released in 1986, was recorded live in front of an audience that was asked to not clap or cheer but to remain quiet. The double LP album featured music on only three sides and contained both rockers and ballads. In 1987, he released the classical album Will Power. In 1988, he released another Swing album, the soundtrack to the Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and His Dream (A&M Records). The album earned Jackson a Grammy nomination for Best Album of Original Instrumental Background Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV.
Over the years, he has released music on a number of labels. Laughter & Lust was released in 1991 on Virgin Records. Heaven & Hell (1997), the Grammy-winning Symphony No. 1 (1999) and Night And Day II (2000) were all released on Sony Classical. The live, up-to-that-point career-spanning Two Rainy Nights was released in 2002 on Jackson’s own Great Big Island Records and was distributed by Koch Records. In 2003, Volume 4 was released on Rykodisc. It was his first album to feature the original Joe Jackson Band players (Maby, Sanford, and Houghton) since Beat Crazy. The album was Jackson’s first foray into Rock-n-Roll since 1991’s Laughter and Lust. Its follow-up, the live Afterlife also featured the Joe Jackson Band in 2004 before the 2008 studio record Rain, containing ten compositions, but features only Maby and Houghton.
In 2012, Jackson released the Duke Ellington tribute CD The Duke. Never one to do things in the “expected” way, Jackson’s tribute featured: different arrangements, varying rhythms and guest appearances by among others, Iggy Pop. His latest album Fast Forward via Caroline/Universal, was released in early October 2015. The album features four sets of four songs that were recorded in four different cities–New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans. One can imagine the different moods that these four sets of songs convey.
To say that there have been a lot of changes over the years is an understatement. Some have been gradual. Some have been radical, but all have been based on the muse that lives inside the man. These changes have been both interesting an exhilarating. And, of course, change is good.
What has not changed is his intensity and the high quality of his concert performances. Jackson is a musician’s musician. He is a consummate performer. When he is on stage, all eyes are glued to his every move, quirk, smirk, utterance, and twitch. Jackson has always had a way with a word. His lyrics are clever, thoughtful, and erudite. They can be sweet and soulful, and they can be sharp as a knife. The man can turn a phrase.
With that said, on Wednesday, October 21st, Jackson and his band (long-time cohort and friend bassist Maby, Teddy Kumpel on guitar, and drummer Doug Yowell) appeared at New York City’s cozy, yet fabled The Town Hall. Kicking off the tour in support of Fast Forward September 29th, their performance at the tiny New York City venue (on this second night of a two night stint) was nothing short of astonishing.
The evening started with Jackson on stage alone at the piano. He played a five song opening set on the large grand piano that included “It’s Different For Girls,” “Home Town,” “Be My Number Two” and a wondrous barrelhouse bluesy and jazzy cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (which Jackson introduced by saying that he re-imagined and rearranged the song to fit his needs. He told of his love of New Orleans music, especially the piano playing of James Booker and Professor Longhair. He explained that, “This is what the song might have sounded like if Joni had been a piano player for New Orleans”).
Jackson, who had earlier quipped that “the band will be on soon. I’m the warm-up act…we’ve got a new album…we’re going to do some songs from it, some old stuff and some stuff that is really from the Jurassic Era…,” began the fifth song of the solo set, a scaled down version of the title track from the new CD (Fast Forward) using a rhythm machine to keep the beat. By the end of the song, the beatbox was no longer necessary as Maby appeared and began to play. Soon, the song morphed into “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and Maby was followed onto the stage in short order by Yowell, and finally by Kumpel.
What ensued was a career-spanning, high-energy set featuring a selection of Jackson’s greatest hits. Peppered throughout the set list were slightly re-invented, yet no less vital, versions of “Real Man” (on which Kumpel shined), “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” “Sunday Papers” “I’m The Man,” and, of course, “Steppin’ Out.”
The midsection of the show gave Jackson the opportunity to introduce the New York crowd to some of the tracks on Fast Forward. “Poor Thing,” was a song he described as “a tune for anyone feeling sorry for themselves.” “Kings Of The City,” about people who come to New York City from their small hometowns was, according to Jackson, “about the things that they find and the things that they leave behind.” The final selection of this three song interlude, the rocker “A Little Smile,” could readily be described as a throwback song that would have fit in nicely on any of Jackson’s early releases.
The middle-aged crowd, though interested in the new offerings, had clearly come to hear the older material. Deep cuts from Jackson’s catalogue like “Another World ” and “Love at First Light” were treated like long lost friends. “See No Evil,” a new song that is actually an old song (though not by Jackson–it’s a cover of a Television song originally released on its 1977 Elektra Records release Marquee Moon) received a huge round of applause. “Sunday Papers” got the audience members onto their feet and dancing in the aisles.
During much of the remainder of the main set, Jackson steered the audience toward his new album. Jackson, who was once described as one of New Wave Rock’s angry young men, can still cut right through the fluff. He opined that “the next two songs are from the New Orleans EP. The first one is about telling everyone to fuck off. This is called ‘The Neon Rain.'” The angry rocker acted as a time machine that took many in the crowd on a 30-or-so-year trip back in time. The next song, “Ode To Joy,” brought them back to the present day.
Prior to the main set ender, “Steppin’ Out,” Jackson took the time to again thank the audience. He said, “We take nothing for granted. Thank you!” My first album came out in nineteen-seventy-fucking-nine. It’s a bloody miracle that I’m still here. Thank you for coming. We’re so lucky to have two sold-out nights here. Thank you!” Jackson then proceeded to provide the out-of-its-mind thrilled-to-the-core crowd with an incandescent version of the song. When it ended, the musicians bowed, waved, offered their thanks, and left the stage.
The encores were truly career-spanning. Jackson said the first, “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” was from his “last album, The Duke, a tribute to Duke Ellington. This is a twisted version of one of his songs. I did it with Iggy Pop.” When the crowd cheered wildly, he raised a hand and simply stated, “He’s not here. This is called ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing.'” He then played a truly inspired version of the classic song and gave it an extended coda. “One More Time” from his debut album got the crowd on its feet again. If the audience members were not singing and dancing, they were bopping in their seats, singing, and fist-pumping while Jackson sang his heart out all the while surveying the mayhem. He then affectionately introduced each member of the band and ended the remarkable performance with his trademark closing number, “A Slow Song.” The beautiful and plaintive ballad featured the band members slowly laying down their instruments. First to stop playing was Yowell, who had one last shining moment during one of the song’s crescendos, then laid down his drumsticks, waved his goodbye to the crowd and retreated to the backstage area. Next to leave was Kumpel who departed following a short blast of beautiful guitar playing. With Jackson and Maby as the only players left on stage, the song proceeded for a few short moments before the bassist unplugged and quietly tip-toed away. Jackson finished the sweet tune accompanying himself on the piano as the lights dimmed and the song faded into the ether. He then stood-up, bowed, and left the stage.
No longer the angry young man, on this evening, Jackson (who has quietly entered his early 60s) charmed the crowd at the historic New York City venue. His charm was also evident about an hour prior to the performance when he was seen, unbeknownst to most fans, quietly slipping out the side door of the venue. The few fans who recognized him kept his cover and were rewarded with a polite “thank you” nod and a smile. That goodwill carried through to the performance. Jackson was jovial, funny, and quite talkative and engaging. He left his fans wanting more, and judging from the smiles on both his and the audience members’ faces, each was thinking of when he would play the city again. Chances are when he does, most will be sure to be back.Photo credit: Christine Connallon