Review: JOE JACKSON at At Davidson Theatre

Jackson continues “Stepping Out” by stepping into different genres of music

By: May. 27, 2024
Review: JOE JACKSON at At Davidson Theatre
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Trying to describe who Joe Jackson is as a musician is like applying a label on a wet bottle of beer. Every time one tries to peg what genre of music Jackson performs, the label slides right off.

Jackson morphed again in the opening show of his “Two Rounds of a Racket” tour, which began May 26 at the Speaker Jo Ann Davidson Theatre (77 S. High Street in downtown Columbus). Jackson divided his show into two halves. The first hour was Jackson banging his way through his signature pieces like “Stepping Out,” “You Can’t Get What You Want,” and “The Obvious Song” on a piano. The second half he became “Max Champion,” a fictitious musical hall performer who achieved notoriety from 1910-13 before disappearing during World War I.Review: JOE JACKSON at At Davidson Theatre

That might seem about as likely as country singer Garth Brooks' attempt to transform into emo rocker Chris Gaines in 1999. However, those who have followed Jackson’s career have seen the singer slide among the genres of punk, ska, new wave, jazz, and classical. Jackson’s success started in the New Wave era with snide tunes like “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” and “I’m The Man.” Then he shifted into a balladeer, writing songs like “Be My Number Two,” and “A Slow Song.” He experimented with jazz on albums like “The Duke,” a tribute to Duke Ellington, and the soundtrack to “Tucker: A Man and His Dreams” and classical music on “Heaven and Hell.”

Judging by the attendance at the May 26 concert (the 904-seat Davidson Theatre was only two-thirds full), some of his audience may have chosen to stay away from this transformation. Those who did attend may have been surprised by the results.

Jackson began his first tour since 2022 armed with a synthesizer, a mysterious coffee cup, and a desire to time travel backward through his catalog. He opened the show with “Dave” from the 2019 “Fool” album, “A Little Smile” from 2015’s “Fast Forward,” and played “Love At First Light” from Joe Jackson Band 4 (2003) for the first time in Columbus.

His voice was surprisingly raspy considering this was his first stop in a 46-show, seven-country tour and he hit a couple off notes on the keyboard. After taking a pull of his coffee cup, Jackson smiled and said, “They say this stuff is good for your voice, but by the end of the tour, I can’t even stand the smell of it.”

After a brief stopover in the 1990s with “The Obvious Song” from the vastly underrated “Laughter and Lust” (1991) album, Jackson dove deep into his 1980s catalog with “Be My Number 2,” and “You Can’t Get What You Want (Until You Know What You Want),” from “Body and Soul” (1984) and “Real Men” and “Stepping Out” from “Night And Day” (1982). He was able to imitate these songs’ bassline (quite a feat on a piano) as well as its rhythm.

In the middle of the 1980s songs, a fan shouted out, “I love the 80s” and the comment forced Jackson to wax nostalgically about the decade.

“You love the 1980s? I didn’t particularly love the 80s but I must admit that’s when I had my most success,” he said with a chuckle. “Back then, people actually bought records. You could be a midrange artist and still sell records. Now you can be a big star … and sell nothing.”

After playing his only 1970s entries, “It’s Different For Girls” and “On Your Radio” from “I Am The Man” (1979), on his setlist, Jackson joked “We’ve made it back to 1979 (the year of his first album). Now we’ve reached the point where I can’t sing (any more of my songs). I didn’t write any songs in the 1960s, so I am going to have to borrow from someone else’s.”

Jackson then launched into the Beatles’ “Girl” from their “Rubber Soul” album (1965), a song “we’ve done many times before but never here in Columbus.” Jackson found a way to put his own spin on the classic, making it sound like it was being played in a Western saloon and exaggerating Lennon’s exasperated sighs.

Jackson then teased the audience, saying “we’re getting into the 1940s and 30s, the years of the Great American songbook where you had the songs of George Gershwin and Cole Porter …” After a loud burst of applause, he continued, “but everyone tries to do that. I am not going to compete with Frank Sinatra. I liked to go before that.

“I have always been interested in the Music Hall period of music. A lot of these songs are quite satirical, poking fun of the privileged and the pompous.”

Jackson played a snippet from “Hello, Hello! Who’s Your Lady Friend?” a song written by Harry Fragson, Worton David and Bert Lee in 1913. Jackson performed the song in a cameo appearance in the 2005 movie, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Although he only played two of the song’s seven stanzas, he gave the audience a sampling of what was to come in the second half of the show.

When Jackson traded in his blue sportscoat and slacks for a purple top hat and overcoat for the second half of the show, it was like the singer shed his skin. Being backed by a talented nine-piece orchestra and assuming the character of Max Champion seemed to breathe new life into the singer.

Under the direction of Daniel MIntseris, the orchestra featured a brass quartet of Ricky Roshell (flute and piccolo), Jackie Copeland (trumpet), Christa Van Alstine (clarinet) and Sam Kulik (tuba/trombone) and a string section of Richard Hammond (standing bass), Lourdes Rosales Martinez (viola) and Susann Aquila (violin) – all dressed in early 1900s attire -- supported Jackson and drummer Doug Yowell.

The group came out of the intermission by shooting into “Why, Why, Why” and then segued into “What A Racket.” The whole idea of Max Champion requires a little suspension of disbelief. By the time they completed their 12-song set, the group had won over any doubters.

In his press release for the new album, Jackson said, “These were wonderful songs in their time, but they're surprisingly modern, too. Sometimes it's almost as if Max is speaking, from his London of the early 20th century, directly to us in the early 21st."

At times the audience wasn’t sure whether to take Jackson at his word. For example, before “The Bishop and the Actress,” Jackson said, “One of the things they did back then was they wrote songs that weren’t respectable so people tried to shut them down and censor their songs. So, they used a lot of rude double-entendres and euphemisms. In this song, Max tried to write a song entirely in obscene double-entendres.

“In England, this is a thing that people do sometimes. Someone will say something completely innocent and the person will say ‘as the bishop said to the actress …’ and immediately makes it obscene. It’s like when people around here say, ‘That’s what she said.’”

In addition to the nod to Steve Carrell, Jackson poked many a finger at modern flaws under the guise of Champion. The song, “Think of the Show! A Thespian’s Lament” addresses (tongue firmly planted in cheek) why actors should be encouraged to speak their mind about their political beliefs: Ev'ry actor possesses the soul of a saint and a marvelous mind analytical/One never professes to practice restraint In propounding positions political/A play, you must pay to see But we proffer advice for free!” Such a line probably wouldn’t work in a modern pop song setting but under the guise of a Turn-of-the-20th-Century song, it hits its target perfectly and brutally.

Jackson is a master of finding and exploiting Champion’s voice with his normal acerbic wit. The song, “Dear Old Mom,” sounds like a Hallmark Mother’s Day piece of fluff at first listen. Then one hears the darkness within it – “Eve’ry Saturday, she’d laugh as scrubbed in the bath with the biggest bar of soap you’ve ever seen. Times was hard, but we was happy… and hygienic.” The storyteller then can’t remember if he had all 10 family members then or if his brothers and sisters had been reduced to six or seven.

For the first song of his encore, Jackson pondered what it would have sounded like if Champion had composed his hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” The result was a brilliant reinvention in a 1910 Music Hall style with Kulik’s tuba taking over the bass line.  

The song was a microcosm of Jackson’s career. It is rare that an artist can switch around what he is known for and still come out with something that sounds refreshing and honest. Perhaps “ever changing” might be the label that sticks best on Jackson.Review: JOE JACKSON at At Davidson Theatre

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Batterson


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