If Merriam-Webster defines the word alchemy as “a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way”, then Joe Jackson has definitely mastered that in his music for the last 40 years. Since emerging from the New Wave scene in the late ’70s, the veteran British singer-songwriter has effortlessly and seamlessly incorporated a variety of styles into his sophisticated pop music throughout his career, including ska, big band, jazz, soul, Latin, and classical. Yet through all of those stylistic left turns remain Jackson’ blunt yet soulful singing, and lyrics that verge between wry commentary and poignant introspection.
“Alchemy” is also the name of a track on Jackson’s new album Fool, and it’s what he and his band opened with during his sold-out show at New York City’s Town Hall on February 15. The concert was part of his Four Decade tour in celebration of his 40 years as a professional recording artist. For that occasion, Jackson performed songs from his previous four albums to represent the last four decades of his career: 1979’s Look Sharp!, 1982’s Night and Day, 1991’s Laughter and Lust, and 2008’s Rain – as well as cuts from Fool.
Accompanied by a fine band that included drummer Doug Yowell, guitarist Teddy Kumpel, and of course longtime bassist extraordinaire Graham Maby, Jackson deftly crisscrossed the past and present with a well-curated setlist: from the New Wave/power pop-tinged Look Sharp! (“One More Time”, Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, “Sunday Papers”); through the New York-influenced pop of Night and Day (“Breaking Us in Two”, “Real Men”, “Another World”); to the underrated, eclectic-sounding albums of Laughter and Lust (“Stranger Than Fiction”, “My House”) and Rain (“Invisible Man”, “Wasted Time”). The songs from Fool – whose theme centers on comedy and tragedy – blended in quite well with the older songs, including “Big Black Cloud”, “Fabulously Absolute”, the title song, and “Friend Better”.
While the set drew heavily from those five aforementioned albums, the musician also unearthed a couple of other songs from his catalog, including the jazzy “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” and “Ode to Joy”, along with covers of the Beatles’ “Rain” and Steely Dan’s “King of the World”. The encore featured a rendition of the singer’s most popular hit song, “Steppin’ Out”, which came pretty close to sounding like the original studio track on Night and Day (previously, Jackson had recast the song in different arrangements over the years), and the fierce rocker “Got the Time”. Finally the last song of the show, a reprise of the elegant “Alchemy” from Fool , perfectly bookended the evening.
Aside from the memorable melodies and lyrics, the one thing that can always be counted on a Joe Jackson record and live performance is solid musicianship. That was on display by the band for that particular night: guitarist Kumpel showed versatility in playing both jazz and rock riffs; Yowell was a force of nature on the drums; and Maby, who has always played with Jackson since the latter’s debut album Look Sharp!, delivered his usual virtuosic bass playing. Jackson himself was in fine voice as he alternated between the guises of cynical rocker and sophisticated pop crooner; he also turned in some dazzling work behind the keys. Not surprisingly, Jackson was greeted quite enthusiastically by the New York crowd at this show, which was kind of a homecoming since he spent a good portion of his life in the Big Apple before moving to Berlin.
At the height of his popularity in the early ’80s with Night and Day and “Steppin’ Out”, Jackson took a different turn and followed his own artistic muse rather than continuing as a commercial pop star. It might have been career suicide at a time when hit songs and videos were so crucial to one’s success. But as evident with this set, art and longevity eventually won out – an example of an artist who has accumulated a solid body of work and is continuing to forge ahead.