By Jason M. Rubin
The show cemented Joe Jackson’s reputation as an inscrutable and enigmatic songwriter, a talented musician and social outsider who speaks for Everyman.
When Joe Jackson’s debut album, Look Sharp, was released on January 5, 1979, he was instantly branded one of new wave music’s angry young men. Forty years later, he’s not such a young man, he doesn’t appear particularly angry, and new wave turned out to be just one of many musical genres he has explored. Marking this milestone, Jackson is in the midst of what he’s calling The Four Decades Tour. Said tour hit Boston’s Schubert Theatre on Wednesday, February 13, where a sold-out audience was treated to a solid two hours of music along the rock/jazz continuum that cemented Jackson’s reputation as an inscrutable and enigmatic songwriter, a talented musician and social outsider who speaks for Everyman.
On his website, Jackson describes the concept behind the tour: “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years — anything else would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979), Night and Day (1982), Laughter and Lust (1991), Rain (2008), and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers.” The covers he referenced were “Rain” by the Beatles and “King of the World” by Steely Dan; other albums that were touched were I’m the Man, Body and Soul, and Fast Forward.
Even going back to his earliest new wave material, Jackson’s music has never been simple. Having studied composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music in the early 1970s, he has a flair for combining conversational melodies with complex rhythms, with lyrics that can be cynical (“Sunday Papers”), romantic (“Another World”), and dark (“Drowning”). Eschewing the ’80s rock tropes of mechanical synths and guitar pyrotechnics, his arrangements and mixes emphasized the clean and stellar bass playing of his longtime musical foil Graham Maby, with Jackson’s own wailing/keening vocals layered on top. Through the decades, he has added reggae rhythms, paid tribute to his jump blues and swing heroes, incorporated Latin jazz percussion and meters, composed a symphony, and eventually returned to more straightforward rock.
As the band, which also included guitarist Teddy Kumpel and the extremely impressive Doug Yowell on drums, took the stage, they launched into the slow, noir-ish “Alchemy” from his new album, Fool. Just as the mellow mood had settled in, the band stopped on a dime and went back forty years to the leadoff track from Look Sharp, the revved-up rocker “One More Time.” It was clear that the audience should expect the unexpected in terms of chronology, tempo, and volume. A pattern soon emerged, however; with just a few exceptions, Jackson would play two songs from a featured album, then do a pair from another. Despite the range of styles and only four musicians, there was a harmoniousness in the performances – the unifying factors being the sheer quality of the music and the players.
Jackson used to tour with an additional keyboardist, allowing him to be the frontman and focal figure without having to sit behind an instrument. It was actually a nice change of pace to have him playing all night long, showing off his chops on keyboards and melodica. His voice, somewhat lower these days, is still in fine shape and served both the ballads and the uptempo pieces well. As for the band, Maby remains one of the best bassists in rock, Yowell demonstrated mind-blowing dexterity and impeccable time, and Kumpel was a fluid player, though his loud, metallic sound was less welcome on the jazzier tunes.
Overall, the albums Look Sharp, Night and Day, and Fool were featured the most (four songs apiece from the first two, and five from the new one); only two songs each from Laughter and Lust and Rain were performed. Prior to the show, my friend and I were discussing how audiences are rarely enthusiastic about hearing new material in concert, when they should have faith that the artist they enjoy still knows how to make good music. And indeed, the new songs from Fool were uniformly excellent and very well received by the adoring crowd.
This was, if memory serves, the fifth time I have seen Joe Jackson in concert. In the past, he has been somewhat cantankerous onstage, once chastising the audience for clapping along (“What do you think I have a [blanking] drummer for?”). In 2019, he could not have been a nicer chap. He spoke warmly, seemed genuinely grateful for the response he received, and delivered a show that is a shoo-in for my “best concerts of the year” list, still ten months away. Forty years on, Jackson has traded in his angry young man persona for that of a benevolent and beloved veteran of the rock wars.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 33 years, the last 18 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.