Rising to prominence during the late ‘70s new wave boom, Joe Jackson and his vast repertoire have refused to stay in one stylistic box for too long. He’s flirted with Latin rhythms, classical music, jazz and pop since the release of his stellar 1979 debut album, Look Sharp! while remaining one of the more unpredictable and bold musicians of his era.
Jackson’s 40-year tenure is being commemorated on his current trek, the aptly-named “Four Decade Tour” and the jaunt included a nearly sold-out, almost two-hour show at the ornate Tampa Theatre.
Without an opening act, Jackson and his superb three-piece band got started in dramatic fashion just after the scheduled showtime. With intense red lighting flooding the grand stage, band members walked onstage one at a time and began to show off their individual talents before the main attraction appeared. Jackson — elegantly dressed in a navy blue suit and sporting a thatch of white hair — emerged and took his place at his keyboards; he immediately launched into “Alchemy,” the moody, almost eerie closing track from his current album, Fool.
A snafu in the sound mix left Jackson’s strong, emotive vocals a bit lost throughout the melancholic number. The parts laid down by guitarist Teddy Kumpel, longtime bassist Graham Maby and ace drummer Doug Yowell were perfectly audible, but Jackson’s words were hard to decipher. The issue was quickly rectified and Jackson’s vocals were much clearer by the next song, a fiery version of barnburner “One More Time.”
For those who might not have noticed, the always witty and clever singer pointed out that he’d just opened the program with the last song from his new record followed by the opening cut from his renowned debut album, giving the nod to his time-tested long and storied catalog.
Showered with thunderous applause and reactions when dipping back to his earlier, more aggressive numbers, the audience, represented by a variety of age groups, turned many of Jackson’s new wave nuggets into spirited sing-alongs. His debut single (the cheeky Top 40 smash “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”) was punctuated with loud lyrical interjections from those in the theater seats and Jackson seemed downright amused by the hearty participation.
True to form, Jackson made it clear that he’d be revisiting all of the decades his musical journey has spanned. As a clear indication of the twists and turns the set list would take, the sumptuous, 1982’s Latin jazz inspired “Another World” perfectly captured the depth of Jackson’s body of work. A near-perfect reading of the tune showed off each band member’s adept skill and let Jackson flex his still strong and recognizable vocal style.
While some in attendance may not have been familiar with a few of the night’s more obscure offerings, or with selections from Jackson’s most recent album, the opening song from that album, “Big Black Cloud” was particularly well-received by those hip to its lyrical reference to Tampa Bay in the opening line. As expected, the mention was met with a raucous reaction. There was one for the diehards too: “Goin’ Downtown,” a cut from the often overlooked 1991 album Laughter & Lust was a pleasant and unexpected surprise but was only one of the many tricks Jackson pulled out of his sleeve throughout the night.
Always recognized as a gifted songwriter, Jackson has no qualms with taking a stab at the work of other writers when onstage. This night’s covers included a melodic reading of “Rain” by The Beatles (complete with superb, layered backing vocals from his band members) and a nod to a jazz-rock outfit Steely Dan (a stunning version of “King of the World”).
Once labeled an angry, cantankerous member of the new wave era, Jackson has mellowed over the years, but he hasn’t skimped on wit or wisdom in the process. Offering brief, engaging anecdotes in between songs, Jackson’s most poignant words came when he contemplated the need to remain grounded.
“It’s important to keep a sense of humor… or else you’re fucked,” he joked. The message seemed to come from someone who has lived and learned that theory better than most.
“We appreciate your support… especially after all these bloody years,” Jackson also announced and the message seemed heartfelt and authentic. But, truth be told, it’s hard not to support someone who has never been afraid to take musical chances and explore his fascination with the art of songwriting .
Winding up the night with even more proof of his worth and value, the main set found Jackson hopscotching through the slick, jazz-inspired “You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want),” the snarky, yet still topical, “Sunday Papers” and the new wave classic “I’m The Man.”
The encore was absolutely clever. Jackson’s biggest hit, “Steppin’ Out” received a hell of an introduction thandat found him describing how the song was originally written and recorded. In total stage shtick and showmanship, Jackson had a stagehand bring the original drum machine he used to record the song (a Korg Rhythm 55 from 1979 for those keeping score) onstage while wearing surgical gloves. Making light of the fact that the infectious pop gem is hardly ever performed in its original arrangement, Jackson made it clear that this straight reading was a rarity since the song typically gets more of a jazz or ballad treatment in concert. Met with unmatched approval, the song sounded as fresh and buoyant as ever and drove audience members to leap from their seats and make use of the aisles in the theater to dance.
Ending like he opened, a reprise of “Alchemy” brought the evening to a close and provided a sense of completion.
Fans got what they came for: a truly eccentric program devised by a virtual musical trailblazer who has never been afraid to step outside any musical confines. The longtime followers saw this night as another reason why Jackson has remained one of the most inspiring and idiosyncratic artists of the last four decades. Those who were experiencing Jackson for the first time got proof of how skillful and deft a live performer his is. But undoubtedly, both sects will wind up becoming return patrons if we’re lucky enough to have Joe Jackson grace another local concert stage anytime soon.
One More Time
Is She Really Going Out With Him?
Big Black Cloud
It’s Different For Girls (solo piano)
King of the World [Steely Dan]
You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
Ode to Joy
I’m The Man
Got The Time