Joe Jackson Steps Out at New York's Town Hall with Television Cover, Greatest Hits: Concert Review

Courtesy of Matthew Allen
The new holds its own against the old.

"There's only one thing an artist loves more than applause, and that's applause for a new project," Joe Jackson confessed following a hearty cheer from the crowd at Town Hall for his latest album Fast Forward. "We're just whores, basically." But the onetime hitmaker had, indeed, given fans something to hoot about: the record's title track, the first new song he performed during this career-spanning set, which continues the tradition of "what's it all about?" chin-scratchers that Jackson has penned periodically since debuting with a bang on 1979's Look Sharp!

"The only place that's seriously strange to be is here / And the only time that's maddeningly mysterious is now," he sang, the new song ending a five-song solo set that ranged from an aching "It's Different for Girls" to a cover of The Beatles' "Girl" on which his lovelorn sighs were so exaggerated they could only be self-mockery.

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Jackson's band (longtime bassist Graham Maby; Teddy Kumpel on guitar and Doug Yowell on drums) took the stage one by one during "Is She Really Going Out with Him?," a tune he has reinvented so many ways that he once put three versions on a live album and left listeners wanting more. On Wednesday, he reserved that tweaking for "Real Men," letting Kumpel's expressive guitar substitute for his usual "whoa-oh" vocal refrain and finding room for hints of Jamaican dub.

The set caught fire with Jackson's 1984 hit "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)" before shifting the spotlight back to new material. Introducing "Junkie Diva," the songwriter complained about a Denver newspaper article that "stated as an absolute fact" the song was about the late Amy Winehouse. "It's not," he declared, explaining that the song is about a fan, not a singer, and that in any case, "just so you know, I was thinking about Billie Holiday."

Jackson had meant for the new album to be a quartet of EPs, recording tracks in four different cities with four different bands. He recruited such A-list drummers as Brian Blade and Galactic's Stanton Moore for these sessions, but Yowell proved to be a less sensitive accompanist, steamrolling "Diva" and battering Jackson's plaintive vocal on the slowed-down "Stepping Out." (Yowell's bombast was welcome, though, on the night's scorching version of "Sunday Papers".)

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A stagehand brought out a top-hat at one point, from which Jackson drew a slip of paper indicating the cover he'd play next. He signaled the number to his bandmates by raising his hands in the air like an attacking beast, and a David Bowie fan in the crowd knew immediately the tune would be the seasonally appropriate "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)."  But that cover and the earlier Beatles number took a backseat to a bolder one, recorded for Fast Forward, that kicked off the set's encore.

Television's "See No Evil," the Brit explained, was one of the songs that convinced him he needed to travel to New York, the city that would eventually inspire some of his best songs. The kickoff track to 1977's Marquee Moon, "Evil" is an angular, young-punk's song, a nervy choice for a sexagenarian leading his band from a piano bench. But Jackson's delivery was even more credible in person than on record, leading into a fierce take on "One More Time" that further demonstrated the strength of his voice. That power was reined in on the night's expected closer, "A Slow Song," whose chorus was not a cathartic cry but a quiet plea. Less emotionally satisfying than it had been in the past, perhaps, but — for an artist who convincingly claimed astonishment that he was selling out this venue decades after getting his start "in a pub next door to a glue factory" — a modest and gracious way of sending us off into the night.

Set List:

It's Different for Girls
Be My Number Two
Home Town
Fast Forward
Is She Really Going Out With Him?
Real Men
You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
Junkie Diva
Kings of the City
A Little Smile
The Blue Time
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) 
Sunday Papers
Keep on Dreaming
Ode to Joy
Steppin' Out


See No Evil (Television)
One More Time
A Slow Song