Joe Jackson Wows Milwaukee
In the liner notes of Joe Jackson’s Live: 1980/86, Jackson reveals his philosophy of live performing: artists should play what keeps them excited because an audience will inevitably see through a half-hearted concert. It’s a mindset that – for the four Jackson performances I’ve attended in years past – never failed to satisfy. Currently promoting his tribute album to Duke Ellington, Joe Jackson once again wowed an appreciative audience on Saturday night at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, blending old and new seamlessly, often with surprising instrumentation and arrangements.
Beginning the evening with a solo performance of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” before segueing into his own “Be My Number Two” (but only after a false start after pressing the wrong patch on his keyboard), Jackson then welcomed his stellar band, including violinist Regina Carter, long-time Jackson percussionist Sue Hadjopoulus, Nate Smith on Drums, guitarist Adam Rogers, Jesse Murphy on bass and Allison Cornell on keys, vocals and viola. The result was a refreshing mix that effectively wove traditional and well-known with eclectic and obscure.
The audience, ranging in age from the very young (a 9 year-old sat in front of me) to moderately old, some of whom may have been there to simply check out a band playing Ellington tunes, were as appreciative of the lesser-known selections as they were of hit songs like “Steppin’ Out,” “You Can’t Get What You Want,” and “It’s Different for Girls.” The set list that spanned over a half a century never stalled, indicating that even alongside the classics of Ellington, Jackson’s catalogue contains examples of well-crafted songs.
The band looked to Regina Carter to tackle many of the improvised solos, though Jackson, sitting down at a keyboard and sporting a tan blazer, proved capable of handling intricate piano runs, especially during the Ellington pieces. His singing was also surprisingly strong, though he did briefly flub the lyrics to “Is She Really Going Out With Him” and “Real Men” before quickly getting back on track.
Allison Cornell beautifully sang lead vocals on several songs, and bassist Jesse Murphy – taking place of Jackson’s usual bassist, Graham Maby – played upright and tuba on a few numbers. The most surprising arrangement was the first encore, when Murphy stood alone with his tuba, leaving the audience to consider the possibilities. Then he started the familiar opening line of “Is She Really Going Out With Him” with Jackson supplying the harmony on accordion, and the audience sang on cue as if they were hearing a traditional four-piece rock group. There aren’t many artists who could get away with the dismantling of familiar arrangements with such well-received results.
The show’s highlights, which stirred the audience into a mild frenzy, were the tracks from 1982’s Night and Day, including “Another World,” “Target” and Jackson’s long-time ending number, “A Slow Song.” Jackson nailed the high note on the latter perfectly, and at various points throughout the song, band members exited the stage, leaving Jackson to finish the concert the way he began – as a solo artist playing the piano. During the final standing ovation, Jackson bowed and appeared to be genuinely moved, grateful to still be performing after so many years for such open-minded audiences.