By now, British singer-songwriter Joe Jackson has seen more American towns than most U.S. presidential candidates. Since 2015, he and his band have played across the U.S., Canada and Europe in support of his latest album, Fast Forward (Work Song, 2015). Come Sunday, July 29, he'll hit The Egyptian Theatre--his first concert in Boise, but the final show of a tour that was never supposed to last this long. Jackson extended his run five times, and each time, all of the shows were sellouts. It's not hard to spot the irony--a Fast Forward tour that was continuously on repeat.
No doubt, Jackson found a recipe that works—a mix of new and old songs that captures the best of his long, eclectic oeuvre. In fact, some new songs during this latest extension of the tour even postdate Fast Forward, and Jackson is performing them live for the first time this summer.
An online bootleg video from this year's Ottawa Bluesfest gives upcoming concert attendees a taste of what to expect: Jackson, wearing the same style of blue suit he's worn since the early '80s, plays a short solo set on the piano (the tour is even dubbed No Opening Act). It may be considered a risk for an aging musician to open solo—with, it's understood, no one to hide behind—but the risk pays off. Jackson's hair may have faded, but his voice has not; and his arrangements, stripped down for the piano, showcase his decades of strong songwriting. "It's Different For Girls," a chart-topping hit nearly 40 years ago, sounds as good today on the piano as it did on guitar, bass and drums in 1979. One by one, the rest of the band joins Jackson on stage in the video: Graham Maby, a bassist who's played with Jackson from the beginning, appears to play "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" Teddy Kumpel (guitar) and Doug Yowell (drums) complete the quartet, playing with an ease acquired over years of touring. The energy is maintained throughout, even when, in the middle of a raucous rendition of "One More Time," an insect flies up Jackson's nose.
Jackson's professional life is a roadmap filled with swerves. It's a bit of a surprise that he's a musician at all. By his own account in the 1999 memoir A Cure For Gravity, his hometown of Portsmouth, England, was a musical desert. Neither of his parents played music, but they did what they could to encourage their son, signing him up for violin lessons and even moving a piano into their home. By 16, he'd won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music to study classical composition, but not before developing a taste for pop and punk music. A few false starts later, Jackson was signed to A&M Records. His debut album in 1979, Look Sharp!, garnered critical acclaim but modest commercial success.
Contemporaries like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker defined their own new-wave sound with twitchy rhythms, bright guitars, clever lyrics and a penchant for sardonic social commentary. But with Look Sharp!, Jackson cut across the boundaries of that genre. He readily adopted the rhythms of ska and reggae on tracks like "Sunday Papers" and "Fools In Love." Later albums played up that eclecticism. In 1982, he released Night and Day (A&M Records), which combined synth-pop, salsa and jazz. That album also spawned his most successful single release in the U.S.: "Steppin' Out," which garnered two Grammy nominations. Decades later, Jackson would finally win a Grammy not for his pop music, but for a new-age classical album, Symphony No. 1 (Sony Classical), released in 1999.
Originally conceived as four separate EPs, Jackson recorded Fast Forward in four cities on two continents. His songwriting has aged as well as his performance: He's more sagely than you might remember him, no longer just the witty misanthrope or bruised lover of his early albums.
Actually, Jackson comes off as something of a philosopher. The song "Fast Forward" imagines what it would be like to look back on the present from the future, and whether that might help us understand our current moment.
"The only place that's seriously strange to be is here / and the only time that's maddeningly mysterious is now," he sings. It's tempting, on occasion, to want to hit fast forward on our times, to skip ahead to a future we think must be better. But "Fast Forward" isn't a song about escape: It's a song about understanding, and about what we gain when we assume a perspective larger than our own.