Joe Jackson and the Incredible Shrinking Playlist (Updated)


22. Apr. 2008, 18:11

Sat 19 Apr – Joe Jackson

Some day I'm going to get to see Joe Jackson early on the American leg of one of his tours, before he's settled in and road weary. The last time I saw him, in support of Night and Day II, I'd read reviews of two-and-a-half hour shows that included an extended solo set in the middle and a scorching cover of Steely Dan's Reelin' In The Years. But by the time he got to Cleveland, the show was down to a tight two hours. It was still great, but I had to wonder if he had something against Cleveland.

So for his show in Pittsburgh, I avoided reading reviews of previous shows. But, as it turns out, the set list was literally changed at the last minute - so I had to wonder. Perhaps I'm just cursed.

A little background first. This was my fourth JJ show. I've seen him with a ten piece band that included a horn section (Blaze Of Glory tour), a five piece band (the Warmin' It Up club tour which rehearsed material for the soon-to-be-recorded Laughter And Lust), and a six piece with a violin and a cello player and no guitarist (Night and Day II tour). I was looking forward to seeing this lineup of Piano, Bass and Drums in support of Rain. My wife was to accompany me to this show, but my son (Benjamin Faust) was down visiting, and she decided he should go see JJ as part of his musical education. So my son and I headed off to Pittsburgh with an iPod Shuffle full of JJ tunes to give him a crash course in what he was going to hear.

The Carnegie Music Hall is part of a public library, and is a quaint, ornate theater that seats 800 by Benjamin's reckoning. It's one of those places that they used to build in the late 18- and early 1900's. The seats were narrow and wooden, and every blessed one of them squeaked in a loud fingernails-on-chalkboard style when you pushed the sit-upon part down.

The crowd was interesting. Mostly folks my age or older. Some younger folks. And there were a lot of kids. I mean age 10 and under. One entire family of 15 came and took up two rows - a white haired grandma and grandpa, their kids, and the kids' kids, an assortment of children all under the age of 6. I was concerned about this group, especially since they let one of the little girls wander the aisle during the warm up act, but they all did fine during the show.

Speaking of the warmup act, it was a guy named Mutlu from Philadelphia, whose Wikipedia page (self-penned, I suspect) bills him as a soul/hip hop influenced act. Whatever. He played an unplugged set with himself and another player on acoustic guitars. It reminded me of Horse With No Name era America, and Benjamin compared him to the Spin Doctors and latter-day Hanson. The set was interesting stuff. I liked it because it wasn't the same kind of stuff you hear day in and day out. On the other hand, it didn't really grab me enough to plunk down for the EP he was hawking at the swag table.

Then we settled down to await JJ. We waited... and waited... and waited. Thirty minutes ticked by. People were doing the clap and shout "Joe... Joe... Joe..." I tried to talk people around me into doing a sing-along of Is She Really Going Out With Him?, to no avail. Then movement on the stage.... the white bearded roadie came out and removed the set list from the Piano, the floor near Graham Maby's microphone, and Dave Houghton's drum kit.

"Oh, no," I tell Benjamin. "He's changing the set list."

Time goes by. Another five or ten minutes. The roadie comes back and puts set lists down again. More time passes. The lights go out. Houghton comes out, then Maby, and then the man himself.

They opened with the song that Benjamin most wanted to hear, Steppin' Out. This was a hybrid version, starting off slow like on the 80-86 live album, and then snapping into the uptempo version known from the album. My son was delighted. A song he knew!

Right away I was glad I had sprung for the tickets and made the two hour drive to the show. In the other shows I've seen JJ played more the frontman, playing occasionally but mostly hanging out at the standing mike. This show highlighted Jackson's piano skills, and the stripped down version of the band was a great vehicle to do just that.

After another song from Night And Day and two songs from Rain, JJ told us, "we have no idea what we're going to play next." He then went on to explain that, because the Music Hall had such a great sound to it, they wanted to play something appropriately sparse to let the acoustics come into play. Ah-ha! The reason for the set list change. This announcement triggered a rash of suggestions from the audience. JJ politely waved them away and took the band into Not Here, Not Now, a rarely-played song from Body And Soul. An appropriate choice, since that album was recorded in a cavernous Masonic Hall known for it's live acoustics (making it a great place for jazz ensembles to record).

Moving on, Jackson showed his age, referring to a binder filled with lyrics for some of the newer songs (no complaints here - I've seen Billy Joel and Stan Ridgway do the same thing), and forgetting the lyrics midway through On Your Radio, covering his face and shaking his head in dismay, to the crowd's amusement. It happened again later, during the encore's Is She Really Going Out With Him?, but at that point it didn't matter - it had turned into an audience sing along by that point.

Other highlights of the approximately 100 minute set - only one Joe solo-at-the-piano song, Solo (So Low). A bass-and-drum version of You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want) that featured JJ on shaker, a spontaneous audience sing-along in the chorus, and no piano until the last few climactic bars. A rearranged vocal part on the first verse of It's Different For Girls that wrung each last drop of despair from the words until Maby and Houghton kicked in with the traditional arrangement. And a crushing version of JJ's traditional set-closer One More Time.

The encore began with "a song by one of my musical heroes," Duke Ellington's Don't Get Around Much Anymore. Benjamin said later that song made him appreciate JJ as a vocalist because he felt that Jackson didn't really pull the song off vocally. He said that JJ was much better singing his own material. We agreed that it was because he was writing around his own limitations - something that both of us do in our musical hobbies.

I had already told Benjamin that A Slow Song was Jackson's traditional show closer, so when the first notes rang out, he looked at me and said "This is it!" I missed being with my wife at that moment since this is her favorite JJ song, so I pulled out my cell phone, dialed home, and left two 30 second excerpts from it on our answering machine for her to find. Maby and Houghton left during the song and JJ finished it solo - then did something I've never seen him do. He walked to the edge of the stage, clasped his hands, soaked in the applause and took a bow.

And as we left the Music Hall, we were greeted by - appropriately enough - rain. But it was a soft, warm rain, what my wife calls a growing rain, and Benjamin and I didn't even get soaked on the block-and-a-half walk to our car. And by the way, he liked the show a lot. Part of it, he said, was because later he had heard me play so much JJ over the years that he recognized a lot of the songs - and he assumed that they had all been hits. Well, they were to me.

It could have been considered a bad night for a road-weary Jackson, but the crowd loved him, compromised set list and all. And with his restless reinvention of song arrangements and constantly changing band configurations, I'd take him on a bad night against most other acts on the top of their game. That's why I'll keep going to his shows - and why I can't wait to see which direction he goes in next.

Set List
(the order in the middle may be off a bit due to JCF memory issues)

Steppin' Out
Another World
Too Tough
Good Bad Boy
On Your Radio
Not Here, Not Now
The Uptown Train
Citizen Sane
Take It Like A Man
Solo (So Low)
Stranger Than Fiction
Obvious Song
King Pleasure Time
A Place In The Rain
You Can't Get What You Want ('Till You Know What You Want)
It's Different For Girls
One More Time

Don't Get Around Much Anymore
Is She Really Going Out With Him?
A Slow Song

UPDATE 4/30: After happening upon this page at The Joe Jackson Archive, I have discovered that the Pittsburgh setlist was one of the longer ones, with 20 songs in attendance. Looks to me like most shows are getting 19. To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, "That's one better, innit?" So to The Man I say, sorry I doubted you.


  • rtreynor

    Nice! Lucky guy. Last time I saw him was 2 years ago at the Palace in Cleveland with Todd Rundgren and the string quartet Ethel. Most of the crowd was into Todd and not Joe. His set was solo piano, but Ethel came out for the highlight of the evening, accompanying him on Hometown and The Other Me. Ethel, Joe & Todd all closed the show with a version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. I would have loved to see him do Not Here, Not Now....and would love to eventually see him doing the trio thing. Glad Benjamin enjoyed the show

    22. Apr. 2008, 20:01
  • JoeIsListening

    The Other Me is one of my Top Five JJ songs - I'd have loved to have heard it with Ethel. I decided not to go to that show because I just wasn't that into Todd and didn't know how much JJ I'd get. I've since heard that JJ was great and that Todd reeked - and some were Todd people who said that. Not Here, Not Now was incredible in that hall. Even Benjamin said Wow. Body and Soul is not one of my top JJ albums, but I would've sat through him playing the whole thing in that place.

    22. Apr. 2008, 20:44
  • naryaxword

    Nice review Joe, I've seen a few gigs where the artist changes the set to suit the occasion. An extrememly intimate Colin Blunstone, again in a small provincial theatre, comes to mind. It takes a true artist to pull that off, and given the sometimes painfully personal content of JJ's songs, I can imagine it giving a whole no complexion on the performance. Lucky guy.

    23. Apr. 2008, 16:58
  • dmaxRadio

    See, I woulda loved that JJ/TR show. I'm obviously a Todd is Godd proponent - but I've caught Joe a couple of times too (on the Blaze of Glory tour and then at the KFOG concert for kids with John Hiatt opener). What I've loved about him: his refusal to do it normally. On the KFOG show, it was obvious that he had no guitarist, and chose to do some kinda of Latin version of Is She Really. And it was good. But, I lost track of him around the time he made that great remake of Oh Well and I keep meaning to pick up Vol 4. Maybe it's time...

    26. Apr. 2008, 21:31
  • agrill

    Interesting review - as his show at Cadogan Hall in London in June (also a cavenous venue he was not used to) as almost a carbon copy. Seems like many of the "spontaneous" things he did at your show he also did in London.

    21. Jul. 2008, 15:05
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