Singer-songwriter Joe Jackson hasn't played in Cleveland since a 2005 State Theatre appearance with Todd Rundgren. The crowd at last night’s sold-out (and steamy) Trinity Cathedral didn't hold it against him, however, and Jackson responded to the night's rapturous applause and occasional standing ovation with a 105-minute set balancing hits, covers and new songs.
With little fanfare, he strolled onstage shortly after 8:15 and took up residence at a setup featuring two keyboards—heralding a solo piano opening set which kicked off with "It's Different For Girls," "Home Town" and "Be My Number Two." Jackson's loose arrangements left room for occasional lilting improv, and highlighted that his voice remains a marvel: pristine and soulful, and edged with vibrato and falsetto.
After an undulating, ruminative performance of the title track to his latest album, 2015's Fast Forward
, Jackson's long-time bassist Graham Maby joined him onstage for a duo performance of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" This similarly stripped down take highlighted the pair's reedy vocal harmonies and Maby's playful, strolling bass. Near the end of this song, the rest of Jackson's band — first drummer Doug Yowell and then guitarist Teddy Kumpel— walked on stage at staggered times, building up anticipation which culminated in a menacing, fully arranged performance of "Real Men."
This four-person configuration exuded musical chemistry and charisma, and often sounded like a hot jazz combo — especially on a sizzling, brisk "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)" — or a hollering rock band, as on a punk-inflected "Sunday Papers." On the latter song, the troupe unleashed gang vocal harmonies; in fact, throughout the full-band portion of the set, the group's pinpoint harmonies augmented the music's impact.
From an instrumental standpoint, the full-band arrangements also complemented songs from Fast Forward:
"A Little Smile" was upbeat, with brilliant white lights and stacked chorus vocals highlighting the song's uplifting nature; the hazy "The Blue Time" featured warbling blues guitar and spacious, evocative arrangements which conjured dawning consciousness; "Keep On Dreaming" also had a sauntering, boogie-woogie feel; and the exuberant "Ode To Joy" found Jackson triggering cacophonous percussion sounds on his keyboards.
As always, however, the songwriter wasn't afraid to transform familiar material. He prefaced a solo cover of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" by saying he revamped it by imagining she was a "piano player from New Orleans." Accordingly, Jackson sounded like the house pianist at a local saloon playing ragtime. The main set-ending version of "Steppin' Out" was even more unrecognizable: The band members teased out an atmospheric, post-rock dirge underbelly, as Jackson layered a slowed-down take of the familiar melody and lyrics over the top.
More successful, however, was a cover of David Bowie's "Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)." Jackson commented the song would sound like an "unholy racket" in the venue—and it did, but in the best ways possible. The verses had humming tension, while the choruses exhibited perfect dynamics: Jackson whispered half of each chorus as if sending out a warning shot, and then the band crashed in for the second half with raucous glee. As the song ended, the troupe even combined for spooky falsetto harmonies, adding a touch of Klaus Nomi cabaret grandeur to the proceedings. Bowie no doubt would've grinned and given an approving nod.
To start the encore, Jackson expressed disbelief that his "first two albums came out in nineteen-seventy-fucking-nine." As if to underscore that he's lost none of his razor-sharp edge, he and the band launched into a snarling, punk-inflected version of "On Your Radio" from 1979's I'm The Man. Jackson eased the night out with Night And Day's gorgeous, elegiac "Slow Song," which found each band member leaving the stage one by one, until only the man of the hour was left at the piano to finish the night. It was the perfect ending to a well-executed night of music.
"It's Different For Girls"
"Be My Number Two"
"Big Yellow Taxi"
With Graham Maby:
"Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
With full band:
"You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)"
"Kings Of The City"
"A Little Smile"
"The Blue Time"
"Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)"
"Keep On Dreaming"
"Ode To Joy"
"On Your Radio"