Paul Heinz

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Joe Jackson at Thalia Hall (again)

Joe Jackson has been busy lately.  After not one, not two, but three tours supporting his very strong 2012 release, Fast Forward, he immediately took his band consisting of bassist Graham Maby, drummer Doug Yowell and guitarist Teddy Kumpel to a studio in Boise, Idaho (the location of last summer’s final show), and quickly recorded an eight-track album called Fool.  It too is strong, and at last night’s return to the fabulous Thalia Hall in Pilsen, Chicago, he and his band played five tracks from the album along with a selection of other songs spanning four decades to an enthusiastic sold-out audience.

To commemorate Jackson’s forty years in the industry and to mix things up a bit from his previous tours, the band highlighted tracks from four other albums from four different decades, though two of them were way too predictable: Look Sharp from the 70s, Night and Day from the 80s (those are the predictable ones), Laughter and Lust from the 90s and Rain from the 00s.  It’s these latter two along with the six newer tracks (one from Fast Forward) that made the evening interesting, along with a rendition of “Steppin’ Out” that mimicked the original recording to perfection, including a glockenspiel and Jackson’s Boss DR-55 drum machine whose “club beat” was used in the original.

All of the musicians were excellent and given various moments to shine, though Jackson took more solos than I remember from previous concerts, including one from his once-ubiquitous melodica.  But it was drummer Doug Yowell’s high energy performance who really sole the show.  Animated, forceful and dexterous, Yowell blew me away with the beginning of one of my favorites, “Another World,” when he managed to play the drum beat and accompanying cowbell and timbale beat simultaneously.  My drummer son and I turned to each other with mouths agape.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the final track from 1991’s Laughter and Lust, the moody tune of resignation to love, “Drowned,” along with the opening – and closer! – “Alchemy” from Fool.  That’s right, Jackson both opened and closed with the same song under dim, red lights.  I loved it, if only because it meant that we didn’t have to hear the band end with “Slow Song” again as they had repeatedly since 2000.  Adding “I’m the Man,” “Got the Time,” and Steely Dan’s “King of the World” were welcome crowd-pleasers near the evening’s end, and the new song, “Fool,” was among the most exciting songs of the night.  Jackson pointed out that it is sometime the fool – or jester – who makes life sane (“If you lose your sense of humor, you’re fucked.”) and the song’s playfulness seemed contagious to the four musicians on stage.

All in all it was a great concert.  Jackson continues to use an iPad teleprompter for his lyrics, which is a little odd for songs that he’s been singing for forty years, but hey, if that’s what the guy has to do to keep touring, then I’m all in. I’ve seen Jackson perform eight times now, and this show ranks in the top three for sure. Keep ‘em coming, Joe!

20 More Desert Island Albums

Thirty down with another twenty below. This list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. Here are my first thirty entries, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)
The Pursuit of Happiness - Love Junk
Big Country - Peace in our Times
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 1 and 2)
Pink Floyd - The Wall (sides 3 and 4)
Randy Newman - Little Criminals
Randy Newman - Bad Love
Bad Examples - Kisses 50¢
Paul Simon - Suprise
Off Broadway - On
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark
Lloyd Cole - Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe
Phil Collins - Hello, I Must Be Going!
The Who - Quadrophenia (sides 1 and 2)
Gabriel Kahane - Where are the Arms
Supertramp - Crisis? What Crisis?
Supertramp - Breakfast in America
R.E.M. - Automatic for the People
Yes - Close to the Edge
Elton John - Madman Across the Water
Elton John - Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

Up to speed? Okay - here are my next twenty selections in detail:

Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones (1979).  Wow, what a debut.  I’m not sure how an unknown singer managed to nab Steve Gadd, Dr. John, Randy Newman, Jeff Porcaro, etc. to accompany her, but having first-class musicians to backup your debut sure doesn’t hurt!  Jones’s next two albums are also wonderful, but listening to them front to back, her debut is the standout, with nary a weak track to be found, offering a wide ranging output: playful, nostalgic, desperate, loving and chilling.  “Last Chance Texaco” and “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” are favorites of mine.  That’s another release from 1979.  More to come!

Pete Townshend – White City: A Novel (1985).  Just a few years post-Who, Townshend returns with an excellent solo effort, a sort of story (though I’ve never followed it) taking place in a section of London in the 60s, Townshend surrounds himself with a terrific cast of musicians and focuses on short, melodic songs without getting too bogged down in the story it’s supposed to tell.  Instead, we’re simply left with a solid set of songs, with “Crashing By Design” the highlight.

Aimee Mann – Music from the Motion Picture Magnolia (1999).  Mann’s first solo effort in 1993 has a few of my favorite tracks ever, but six years later her soundtrack to a film that left my jaw on the floor upon first viewing hits the nail on the head.  Once in a while a soundtrack is so inextricably linked to a movie, the opening chords of a song like “Wise Up” is enough to send chills down the spine and transport one right back to the film.  Mann has such a knack for writing lyrics that so perfectly describe a character, it’s easy to overlook the labor that Mann must expend to finish a song.  Either that or she’s just plain brilliant.  Maybe both.  But this is a great album filled with wonderful characterizations.  The soundtrack also two Supertramp songs and a few other cuts, but the album stands on Mann’s contributions alone.  Jon Brion produces and adds his tasty flavoring throughout.

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 1 and 2 (1975). 

Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti, Sides 3 and 4 (1975).  Funny how some songs grate on you after decades of being overplayed while others sound as fresh and urgent as the first time you heard them.  For me, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album is full of the latter.  I’ve never gotten tired of hearing the ball-busting intro to “Kashmir.  If I were a professional baseball player, that would be my song when I came up to bat.  (Think it’s weird to fantasize about being an MLB player?  Yeah, fair enough.)  “Ten Years Gone” is among the most beautifully-crafted songs ever produced, with Page’s multiple guitar tracks interweaving perfectly into a sublime climax.  With just the right balance of rockers and softer tracks, long and short, blues-based and folk-based, Physical Graffiti is one of the best albums in rock history.

Genesis – A Trick of the Tail (1976).  My favorite Genesis albums have shifted over the years.  Wind and Wuthering and Selling England by the Pound used to be tops, but these days if I am to pick a few albums by one of my top two favorite prog-rock bands, one has to be the first album with Phil Collins on lead vocals.  I’ve never been one of those goofballs who claim that Genesis after Peter Gabriel isn’t worth the time of day.  This album is a kick-ass clinic on all things prog, from shifting time signatures, obscure and fanciful lyrics and deft musicianship, but unlike many bands in this genre, Genesis manages to achieve all the essential elements while crafting beautiful melodies over challenging harmonic structures, with just enough lyrical universality to entrance the listener.  Take “Mad Man Moon,” a preeminent track composed by keyboardist Tony Banks.  I couldn’t tell you exactly what the song means or what Banks intended, but it seems to tell a tale of a man who leaves his loved-one in search of glory, and winds up in a desert, where he keenly observes how no matter where you live, the grass appears to be greener elsewhere.  Nothing miraculous there, but beautifully stated over absolutely sublime chord changes, with a mid-section of subtle percussion and piano.  It’s just a perfect, standout track on a standout album.  Only the unfortunate “Robbery Assault and Battery” keeps this album from being flawless.

Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five (1995).

Ben Folds – Rockin’ the Suburbs (2001).  Just like I can’t overstate the importance of Supertramp to the 11 year-old me, I can’t tell you how revitalized my interest in music became when I first heard Ben Folds Five on WXPN, Philadelphia.  Finally, a pianist with edge, wit and chops, with a kick-ass drummer and bass player to boot.  This music influenced my own compositions in a big way, much like Randy Newman had just a few years before.  The debut album holds up oh, so well, and so do the second and third albums, but if I have to choose one from Ben Folds Five, it has to be the one that put them on the map, with “Philosophy,” “Underground” and “Boxing” the highlights.  And a mere six years later, Ben Folds releases an almost perfect solo effort, with some of this most exciting and moving pieces to date.  “Still Fighting It,” “Gone” and “Not the Same” are my favorites.

Marc Cohn – Burning the Daze (1998).  You know him for his pseudo hits, “Walking in Memphis” and “Silver Thunderbird,” and while his debut album is undeniably solid, it’s his third album that grabs me and doesn’t let go.  Oddly, Cohn plays virtually nothing from this release when he performs live, and one gets the feeling that he’s lost all affinity for it.  This collection of songs is deep and dark, delving into the insecurities and baggage that humans carry with them on convoluted paths, with “Lost You in the Canyon” a standout, a song whose lyrics about disconnection from a loved one could be applied to society as a whole twenty years later

Rufus Wainwright – Want One (2003).   To date, this is Wainwright’s crowning achievement, a fifty-eight minute single release absolutely packed with memorable tunes, lush arrangements and lyrics that are utterly empathetic to the human experience.  “I Don’t Know What It Is” is one of my favorites tracks ever, “14th Street” is a gem, and “Dinner and Eight” brings me to tears if I’m in the right sort of mood (or, perhaps, the wrong sort of mood).  Wainwright sometimes aims high and misses the mark – which is entirely forgivable – but with Want One he hits the bulls-eye.  In the age of streaming, you’ll be hard-pressed to hear highly-produced (i.e., expensive) albums like this being recorded anymore.

Sara Bareilles – Kaleidoscope Heart (2010).  Hey, I stand by this, so back off!  Bareilles is ridiculously talented, a pop-melodist extraordinaire, and I love that her lyrics are both vulnerable and strong, providing a great role model for youth and elders alike, male or female, but there’s no denying that she played an important musical role in my daughters’ upbringing.  “Uncharted” and “Let the Rain” are standouts.

Billy Joel – Turnstiles (1976).  I wasn’t aware of just how good an album this is until a few years ago.  I knew all but two of the songs, but hadn’t realize they were all from the same album, self-produced by Billy Joel after relocating back to New York after a stint in LA.  Joel is a consummate lyricist, and the greatest pleasure in listening to his songs – aside from impressive melody – is picking up on lyrics like “Now as we indulge in things refined/We hide our hearts from harder times.”  None of Joel’s albums is perfect, and Turnstiles is no exception, with “All You Want to Do Is Dance” the clunker on Side A, but the other good stuff is so good, I’ll allow it.

Paul McCartney – Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005).  Tug of War and Flowers in the Dirt aren’t nearly as good as I remember them, Back to the Egg is a favorite with just a few too many weak points, Ram may be in vogue with the critics but it really doesn’t measure up, and Band in the Run is undoubtedly a worthy contender, but for me McCartney’s 2005 release is the most solid album from start to finish, and it’s one that speaks to me more lyrically than the nonsensical words on some of his other releases.   I’ve written about Chaos and Creation before, but suffice to say that it’s a great effort with beautiful melodies that are much more complex than they appear to be at first glance.  My one gripe is that I’d love to have more backup vocals – I can actually hear where they should go and what they should be – but producer Nigel Godric opted for a sparser album.

Steely Dan – Gaucho (1980).  Aja is probably their crowning achievement, but I’m kind of tired of the tracks, and I don’t really like “I Got the News.”  Instead, I choose the smooth-jazz follow-up, Gaucho, an album that makes me want to drink a dirty martini in a high-class nightclub.  Polished beyond belief – you can read stories about the lengths that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker went to to get the sounds they wanted – it still breathes humanity and musicianship.  “Babylon Sisters” and the title track are my favorites here.

Joe Jackson – Get Sharp! (1979).  One more from 1979!  Joe Jackson has put out so much great material in so many different genres over four decades, I feel a little bad for picking his very first effort, but there’s simply no denying its magnificence.  From top to bottom, Jackson effuses sarcasm and wit with enough insight and substance to keep it from getting downright cranky, and he wades into the waters of so many different musical feels – the breakdown of the title track, the manic anxiety of “Got the Time,” the reggae feel of “Fools in Love” – that it never gets redundant.  My favorite lyric: “Happy loving couples/in matching white polo-necked sweaters/reading Ideal Homes magazine.”  Fantastic!

Joe Jackson – Blaze of Glory (1989).  Just a decade later Joe put out his most ambitious record to date, the fifty-seven minute-long Blaze of Glory that he played in its entirely when I saw him in September that year.  Each album side plays uninterrupted, beginning with the idealistic outlook of a young man who eventually grows disillusioned and who has to scratch and claw his way to an unsatisfying, but inevitable, consolation.  Bold and beautiful, the only unfortunate aspect of the album is the highly produced and electronically triggered snare and tambourine sounds.  When I saw him live these sounds were prerecorded (or triggered somehow), the drummer literally avoiding playing the snare.  It sure was the 80s!  I found this album on vinyl a few years ago for something like $8 and was ecstatic.

The Hush Sound – Like Vines (2006).  I was turned onto this band after some of its members who attended my town’s local high school rehearsed in my neighbor’s garage, but this isn’t some homer fascination with a local band.  The Hush Sound is serious shit, having produced three albums and gone onto do other musical projects both individually and together.  With a beautiful melding of male vocalist Bob Morris and female vocalist Greta Salpeter, the band produced fabulous dynamic changes from sweet piano waltzes to ballsy guitar rockers and was on regular rotation throughout much of my children’s upbringing.  Greta’s voice and influence grew as the band went on (she was all of 17 when the first album was recorded), but it’s this second album that balances both singers’ influences in perfect harmony.  I see on-line and on Spotify that “Wine Red” has been remixed into a positively horrendous dance tune, a black spot for anyone with musical taste.  If you take the jump, find the original CD avoid this egregious affront to music lovers.

Simple Minds – Once Upon a Time (1985).  Two years before The Joshua Tree, I felt like this Scottish band was accomplishing what U2 was still hoping to achieve: a consistent, powerful album with mass appeal and a unifying sound.  One Upon a Time is nearly perfect, with each of the first five tracks absolute juggernauts.  When they performed “Ghost Dancing” at Live Aid in Philadelphia, I’m not sure the American audience quite knew how blessed they were.  The band’s next album, Street Fighting Years, a whopping four years after, was such a disappointment, it gets my vote for worst follow-up to a magnum opus ever.

10,000 Maniacs – In My Tribe (1987).  This could have gone either way: the band’s 1987 release or its last with singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant, Our Time in Eden.  The latter packs more punch in parts, but the former album marked a clear delineation for me when I purchased it at Tower Records on Mass Ave in Boston instead of Toto’s seventh album.  I chose something new, something progressive, instead of the usual fair I’d been accustomed to.  I’ve never turned my back entirely on classic rock bands, but this purchase opened the door to Elvis Costello, Innocense Mission, and on and on.  This is a terrific release.  I’m ashamed to say – or maybe the U.S. education system should be ashamed – that I didn’t know who Jack Kerouac was in 1987, so that upon hearing the second song on the album – my favorite – I didn’t know who or what Merchant was singing about.  I just knew it was good.  Just as this album opened up musical doors, it also opened up literary doors, as On the Road was soon part of my library.

James Taylor – Never Die Young (1988).  James Taylor is an American treasure, but he’s laid a few eggs in his time, and few of his albums are terrific from front to back.  I thought I might pick Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, but then returned to a tried and true album that I listen to regularly: Never Die Young.  Aside from the fact that I have a personal relationship with this album – my wife and I danced our first dance as a married couple to “Sweet Potato Pie” – there’s just a lot here to like: the quirky “Valentine’s Day” that I fondly recall Taylor playing it at a concert back in 1996, and an ostensibly silly song like “Sun on the Moon” that’s actually quite poignant, speaking to the rat race that many of us choose to engage in.  The only tune I could do without is the last on the album, “First of May,” which is kind of ironic, as this track was the sole representative of the album on JT’s most recent tour.  Go figure.  Probably played better live.

So there you are! One more entry and I’ll be finished with my list of albums I can’t live without. Stay tuned as we ramp up into the new year.

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?

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.

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