Concert Review: Joe Jackson Tests New Songs, Revives Bowie and Mancini at Tour Closer

Like his contemporary Elvis Costello, Jackson seems at peace with his audiences being most in love with the early, pissed-off stuff.

Joe Jackson
Chris Willman

Out-of-town tryouts aren’t just for the theater world. There’s a rich tradition in rock, too, of taking to the road to test and strength unrecorded material, although the custom is on the ropes, obviously, in the YouTube era. Joe Jackson still believes in the process: For July , he tacked a 15-city mini-tour of secondary markets onto the tail end of two years of gigging, for a two-fold purpose, he explained during Sunday’s tour finale in Boise.

The short trek was to hit places he’d “rarely or never played before, here being the latter,” Jackson said shortly into a two-hour set at Idaho’s sold-out, 1,400-seat, sphinx-filled, 91-year-old Egyptian. “The other reason is to try out some new songs, as our next stop is the recording studio. Do you mind? … I figured it was only polite to ask, even though we’re gonna do them anyway.”

Signs that this was the end of the road for now were already evident in the lobby, where the meager merch table offered the choice of Jackson’s latest, now three-year-old CD, “Fast Forward,” or discounted 2016-17 tour T-shirts –sizes small and medium only. But what was happening inside the venerable 1927 auditorium was the farthest thing from a fire sale. There was no sense of weary epilogue in a two-hour performance that devoted a quarter of its 20 songs to brand new material that fit in perfectly comfortably amid the salad-days meat of the set. If only every rocker shared the instinct to keep the last dates in a tour cycle from being weary asterisks by turning them into preview shows for the next album cycle. (Albeit, engagements in Grand Rapids, Burlington or Boise.)

Even the good people of Idaho might have seen this influx of unrecorded songs less as a local blessing than the occasion for extended bathroom breaks, if not for how skillfully Jackson primed the pump with classic-era material that transitioned easily into the new. The beginning and end of the show — along with key midpoints — were devoted to the dual one-two punches of his early career: the new-wave barnburners “Look Sharp!” and “I’m the Man” (both from 1979) and the Manhattan-tux right turn of “Night and Day” and “Body and Soul” (1982 and 1984, respectively).

As at most shows, Jackson opened alone at the piano with the feminine-sensitive “It’s Different for Girls,” then was joined by his eternal bassist, Graham Maby, for the less female-celebrating “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” with the other two players finally joining in for the back-to-feminist conclusion of this vintage triad, “Real Men.”

After a lengthy stretch of new songs with the full ensemble, things got broken down into duo or guitar-less trio format with a pair of numbers representing Jackson’s not-too-terrible twos — “Be My Number Two” and “Breaking Us in Two.” The last stretch of the set put the full band into full force for the skinny-tie redolent “Sunday Papers” and “On Your Radio,” faithfully rendered. But the best of the old stuff was “Steppin’ Out,” rendered peculiarly but successfully as a wistful ballad, as if an evening out were no longer so certain to counteract “all the darkness in our lives,” and the closing “Slow Song,” a request for a balladic respite in life that’s performed as more of a desperate plea at this late date.

But the most exhilarating oldie of the night wasn’t Jackson’s at all. That was “Theme from Peter Gunn,” sung — that’s right, sung — by Jackson in-between guitar-and-piano iterations of Henry Mancini’s classic late ‘50s riff. Mancini was the first to admit the TV detective instrumental was essentially a rock ‘n’ roll tune, and, said Jackson, “a couple years ago I discovered someone had written lyrics to it and that it had been recorded by the great jazz diva Sarah Vaughn (in 1965). I liked her version so much that we based our version on that version, so it’s sort of Sarah Vaughn without the class.” This outshone even Jackson’s impressively nervous rendition of David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),” part of a coterie of covers Jackson has been rotating on this tour annex. (Rotated out in Idaho: Television’s “See No Evil” and Steely Dan’s “Night by Night.”)

Among the five fresh songs, it wasn’t difficult to ascertain an audience favorite, since the new “Fabulously Absolute” sounded right out of the frantic part of 1979. “Big Black Cloud” spoke to the more brooding part of “fear, paranoia and angst,” with its admonition to “get on the treadmill and run, run, run” punctuated by power chords and elegant piano before the band managed to do a live, real-time fade-out. “Fool,” the origin song of “a superhero that has the ability to make you laugh,” introduced some quasi-Egyptian riffing in the soloing, which may or may not have been inspired by the setting. “Alchemy,” a celebration of artistry as contemporary magic, was the hardest to get a handle on, on first listen, but benefitted from a trace of exotica. “Dave,” inspired by the commonest name in Jackson’s hometown on the coast of England, Portsmouth — which he said has the same population as Boise, according to Wikipedia — had a touch of Ray Davies drollery about the sedentary common man: “Dave/Watches the waves/They come and go/So we don’t have to.”

This four-piece is as guitar-centric a band as Davies has ever had — which is to say, it was awarded equal status with his piano and Maby’s highly prominent bass, with Teddy Kumpel capable of subtlety when the songs demanded it and mid-tune re-tuning when “Peter Gunn” demanded that. But the most powerful instrument in this band is, somewhat surprisingly, the snare drum, which Doug Yowell has apparently been commanded to strike as hard as possible at nearly all times. The pleasure of seeing a drummer that powerful in a mid-sized theater is feeling that percussive force first-hand and not even being sure if the drums are mic-ed. Jackson clearly has an appreciation for this kind of room, going back at least to his “Big Word album, which he recorded in a similar-sized theater. Still, he looked genuinely startled at the force of the “Where?” that was shouted back at him during “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” so the appreciation of the acoustics was mutual.

Like his contemporary Elvis Costello, whose recent band tours also mix exclusively late ‘70s/early ‘80s material with the brand new, Jackson seems to be at peace with his audiences being most in love with the early, pissed-off stuff… and more prone to reviving that spirit in fresh songs than he was in some of the decades in-between.

The whole sound of the band was unusually rude, by Jackson standards. The patter, meanwhile, was gracious, in contrast to the old days, when he could sometimes have a confrontational attitude toward his audiences. (The closest he came here was a series of running jokes about the perennial pronunciation of Boise — “I just got a message saying it’s actually Bwah-zay,” he said, mock-correcting himself.) But he’s in that good space some rock ‘n’ roll prodigies are lucky to get to later in their careers, with the kind of maturity that involves the kindness of re-embracing early maturity, and not resenting the spirit that audiences loved first and perhaps best. He wasn’t exactly throwing over the years of evolution in-between, let alone disavowing his jazz and classical albums. But reclaiming a beloved impudence can be its own kind of graciousness.