Joe Jackson in Chicago
In 2012 when I last saw Joe Jackson perform, he led a 7-piece band that showcased interpretations of Duke Ellington originals. Last night at the sold-out Thalia Hall in Chicago, it was back to the basics. Only four musicians graced the stage, including Jackson’s long-time bassist Graham Maby and two fabulous session musicians: guitarist Teddy Kumpel and drummer Doug Yowell (whose crack of the snare is still ringing in my ears). Together they blazed through a set that included Jackson’s usual fare, a couple of surprises and several new songs that held up very well against the older material.
Jackson – sporting an olive suit, white shirt and black shoes – began the evening as a solo artist, playing familiar versions of “It’s Different for Girls,” “Hometown” (a sentimental song about “a place that’s hard to be sentimental about”) and “Be My Number Two” before covering The Beatles’ song “Girl” (yawn). He then played the first of seven songs off of what was supposed to have been four EPs but instead became the full-length Fast Forward due to record company pressure. It was during the complex title track that it became abundantly clear that Jackson was reading his own lyrics – he even pressed the button on his tablet to “fast forward” to the next page of lyrics (and/or chord changes?). Unfortunately, he spent the rest of the evening squinting in what I can only deduce was mock emotion as a way to conceal his reading of the written word. Embarrassing? Well, if he’s suffering from memory loss, then I’ll give him a free pass. Otherwise it comes off as sheer laziness, as he even appeared to be reading lyrics that he’s played live for over thirty years.
After “Fast Forward” the band came up one by one during “Is She Really Going Out With Him” (an act that would be reversed in the closing encore of “A Slow Song”) before kicking it in for “Real Men” – with Kumpel’s lead guitar effectively taking place of Jackson’s original “Oh ohhhh” chorus – and “You Can’t Get What You Want.” The new album then took center stage.
I don’t own Jackson’s first album of original material in seven years (yet), but if last night’s performance is any indication, Fast Forward is a collection of strong, complex songs that – when in the capable hands of last night’s supporting cast – are urgent, energetic and poignant. The album was recorded in four sessions (hence the original idea of releasing four EPs) from four different cities with four different groups of musicians, and last evening’s selections showcased what has become Jackson’s greatest skill – weaving memorable, tuneful melodies against unpredictable chord changes. You won’t hear any three chord songs here, and I’m impressed with how Joe continues to find new ways to compose what are essentially pop songs.
Aside from Jackson’s personal teleprompter, the only other criticism I have of the show is his tendency to lean too heavily on familiar territory. I get why he plays the hits, and sure, “Hometown” and “Be My Number Two” are great songs, but why not “Shanghai Sky” or “The Best I Can Do” as substitutes? Instead of “It’s Different for Girls” why not “One to One”? The only surprises of the evening were “On the Radio,” “China Town” and “Love at First Light” from Volume 4. All sounded superb, and I wish there had been a few others. As for the cover songs, “Peter Gunn” – with lyrics! – was a terrific example of one of only two reasons a band should ever play a cover song: to offer a completely different interpretation than the original or to play a song people don’t already know by heart. As for The Beatles’ “Girl” – what’s the point?