Last Night: Joe Jackson at the Fillmore Miami Beach

Joe Jackson

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater

Joe Jackson has always occupied an upper strata in the world of rock, an artist who’s daringly dabbled in a variety of seemingly disparate genres and pulled each off with convincing aplomb. He took flight in the New Wave world of the late ‘70s, one of a seemingly endless succession of angry young men -- a fraternity whose roster also included the likes of Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and Paul Weller of the Jam -- and while his early records exemplified that defiant approach, he quickly expanded his efforts within a wider and more diverse musical spectrum. In time, his attempts would encompass, jazz, jive, salsa, soundtracks and classical music while still adhering to a sophisticated pop palette that secured him a loyal audience all too willing to indulge his continual shift in styles.

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Now reunited with his original outfit, the aptly dubbed Joe Jackson Band, comprising erstwhile bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton, Jackson in concert is the perfect example of urbane cool, an image that found a perfect fit in the hip but sophisticated environs of Miami Beach’s Fillmore theater. Save for his shock of white hair, he still looks remarkably similar to the brassy young upstart who released his debut album nearly thirty years ago. Dressed in an unassuming black suit and appearing gangly, and even geeky, at times, he nevertheless reflected the confident stride of an amiable artist who was justifiably proud of the sizeable bounty of classic songs he’s accumulated over the years. In Maby and Houghton he has an equally reliable set of anchors, a supporting cast who know how to handle the deft changes and supple nuances that are the essence of Jackson’s shimmering yet effusive piano pop set-ups.

Jackson himself is an able pianist, a singular distinction considering his somewhat unlikely role early on in the post punk divide, when snarling guitars and edgy attitude seemed to suggest elaborate keyboard flourishes were poised on the verge of extinction. While his phrasing can occasionally seem clunky, he also has the virtuosity to spill his exposition into sweeping designs that take on a kind of classical grandeur. Indeed, when the set’s recorded intro, an ethereal instrumental, spilled into the opening chords of “Steppin’ Out” -- one of a handful of songs the band would revisit from the epoch 1982 album Night and Day -- elegance was assured. From that point on, Jackson and company rolled out a steady progression of crowd-pleasers, with chief emphasis on the reunited combo’s most recent effort, Rain. Each of those selections found an ideal fit with the Cole Porter-George Gershwin sense of urban sophistication that has long since become Jackson’s stock in trade, and on the current album’s samplings -- “Citizen Sane,” “Too Tough,” “King Pleasure Time,” “The Uptown Train” and “A Place in the Rain” -- the band recreated the material’s pulsating underbelly and sense of urgency and exhilaration that found each song so bold and effusive in their recorded incarnations. In introducing the latter, Jackson showed one of his frequent flashes of self-effacing humor. “Sometimes you just want to escape to a place that’s cold and misty,” he mused before catching himself with the realization that he was, after all, talking to a Florida audience. “You just can’t relate, can you?”

The rest of the set followed suit, with passionate performances of his nocturnal city songs “Goin’ Downtown” and “Chinatown” (introduced, sans political correctness, as a tune about getting lost in a bad part of town) taking full flight in live exposition. A brilliant segueway from “Fools in Love” into the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love” provided another obvious high point as well. There was also plenty of poignancy, as emanated in the determined delivery of “Still Alive,” the grimly somber “Solo (So Low)” -- the only song that threatened to drag down the energy level entirely -- and final encore “Slow Song,” which, if it seemed somewhat anti-climatic, also proved Jackson was an adept mood manipulator who knows how to take a crowd from elation to reflection in rapid succession. The first two offerings in the three-song encore seemed to confirm that notion, beginning with a spirited take on Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” followed by the obligatory crowd-pleaser culled from his debut album, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Opening act Thea Gilmore proved an inspired addition to the bill, a singer/songwriter whose ability to craft indelible choruses within the context of heart-rending melodies was so brilliantly realized on her latest album Liejacker. After ten years of plying her craft, Gilmore and husband/producer/accompanying guitarist Nigel Stonier still presents a waifish presence on stage, even though she exudes the confidence of one whose fully aware of her ample abilities. This was Gilmore’s fifth tour of the States, and while this British folkie remains mostly an unknown to American audiences, it’s clear that she possesses the material that could make her a star. Gilmore marveled at the fact that their cross-country trek in support of the Jackson band had found them driving 28 hours at a stretch -- with a two year old no less -- and that “28 hours later we were still driving!” Hopefully though that road work will serve up some just rewards. Indeed, the series of songs she culled from Liejacker -- the stirring “Old Soul,” the rousing “Come Up With Me,” “The Wrong Side” and “The Lower Road” -- proved mesmerizing to a crowd that seemed initially indifferent. Likewise, an especially poignant take on Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” dampened more than one pair of eyes and left the crowd spellbound. By the time she and Stonier exited the stage, it was obvious this Gilmore girl had won over a new audience of devotees.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Joe and company were ultimately impressive, but Gilmore was a revelation.

Random Detail: While Jackson’s melodies may be mellow, his rhythm section in Maby and Houghton is one of the most dynamic ensembles could hope for.

By The Way: Night and Day may have aged 25 years, but it remains an indelible classic, one rich in nuance, tone and shading, not to mention a dead-on detailed description of neon lights, rain-splashed streets and urban encounters.

-- Lee Zimmerman

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