There are only a handful of bands I really want to see that I'll never see live. XTC, The Jam and The Stranglers come to mind. Joe Jackson has also been on that list. For whatever reasons, I never was able to catch him live. Look Sharp!, I’m The Man, Beat Crazy! and Night and Day are all among my favorite records. With the release of his 20th record, Fool, and celebrating a 40 year long career, I was thrilled when Adrienne scored tickets for his show at The National in Richmond, Virginia.
A theater build in 1923 and holding about 1500 people, the sold-out venue was the perfect place to see Joe and his amazing band. We had second row floor seats in front of the drummer, and the view and the sound did not disappoint. The conceit of the show was that Joe would concentrate on 4 records from his 40 year career: Look Sharp!, Night and Day, Laughter and Lust, and Fool.
Coming on one at at time to a recorded drum pattern, drummer Doug Yowell, bassist Graham Maby, and guitarist Teddy Kumpel joined Joe on keys and vocals for a sober intro of ‘Alchemy,’ from Fool. Half-way in they crashed into ‘One More Time’ and it was on. I cannot overstate how amazing a drummer Doug Yowell was, absolutely crushing every song. Teddy Kumpel was an effective and tasteful guitarist, his leadwork reminiscent of mid period Steely Dan. Original Joe Jackson Band member Graham Maby was and is in the bassist pantheon; the only complaint was his expensive Spector 5-string bass didn’t have enough treble definition. All three provided excellent backing vocals. Joe was in fine voice and his keyboard playing exquisite throughout.
Early highlights were ‘Big Black Cloud’ and ‘Fabulously Absolute’ from Fool, combined with a beautiful version of ‘Breaking Us In Two’ from Night and Day and an astounding cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rain.’ The middle set consisted of ‘Cancer’ from Night and Day, followed by the amazing ‘Friend Better’ and the supercharged title track from Fool, featuring a sea shanty verse, a tango middle, and a middle eastern dervish riff. It was all that and more and astounding to hear live. This was all followed by a fun ‘Sunday Papers’ where Joe forgot a few lines. The band laughed along with him.
They wrapped up the show with a mega-medley of Steely Dan’s ‘King Of The World’ into ‘You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)’ from Body and Soul into ‘Ode To Joy’ from Fast Forward followed by a frenzied ‘I’m The Man.’ The crowd was wild and demanded an encore. Joe didn’t disappoint. There was quite a bit of equipment movement onstage. Teddy gets a keyboard, Graham a glockenspiel, and Joe shows us the 1979 era drum machine he used on ‘Steppin’ Out.’ He explains that they usually deconstruct the old hits but tonight they will try to play it just like the record. The drum machine is hooked up, and we’re off, Doug on snare and cymbal, Teddy on organ, Graham on glock, and Joe on piano. Drums and synth bass come from the box. They play ‘Steppin’ Out,’ a beautiful and evocative song from 1982. I immediately start crying, because it’s just too much, and so beautiful. A raging ‘Got The Time’ follows, and they pick up where they left off with ‘Alchemy,’ band members going off one by one. An amazing band, a masterful show. It was worth the wait, Joe.
Joe’s new record, Fool, recorded with the above band, is as great and vital a recording as he has made. It is on level with (and probably above) Costello’s current release and critical comeback Look Now. The band is incredible, Joe’s songwriting is diamond sharp and as caustic and funny as ever, and the melodies are impeccable. ‘Fabulously Absolute’ sounds like it could have been on one of his first three records, with a bouncy, sharp new-wave edge. ‘Dave’ is a happy-go-lucky tale of mortality with a great Joe piano riff. The aforementioned title track ‘Fool’ is a true tour-de-force, so much crammed into one song, but it works and works well. ‘32 Kisses’ is a patented Joe Jackson bittersweet love song that sticks in your head. Joe designed this record as an LP, eight songs ,four a side, 20 minutes a side. It works well. This is one of his strongest outings in a long time. He’s found the right band and made the right record. Please check it out.
And if you get the chance to catch Joe live with this line up, don’t hesitate. Their chemistry is like a true band: a playful, interactive, and sympathetic admixture, reflecting its own alchemy. It was not at all a show by a star and sidemen as is the case with some long-established acts. Wow. Joe remains The Man.