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Shepherds Bush Empire, London 2 March 08

Although mainly regarded as a new wave artist with a penchant for post punky pop, Joe Jackson offered us a timely reminder that he has many more colours to his musical palate. Indeed his passionate piano driven narratives are born of a restless nervous energy tempered by the polar opposite of tightly arranged songs.

The rigorous structures are brought to life by a mix of sweeping melodic arpeggios and staccato stop time elements that form a core part in many of his songs. On the evidence of this intimate soiree, the factor that glues it all together is a self confidence born of a restless independent spirit that led him to seek out the myriad musical elements in New York, and more recently saw him record his new album in Berlin.

Either way his musical journey has led him to embracing the primacy of the song in a classic jazz trio format of piano, electric (as opposed to double bass) and drums. Even then most of Dave Houghton percussive set up is electric rather than traditional in format, a nod perhaps to Joe's early career days.

This sold out Shepherds Bush Empire show found Jackson in the role of a quietly assertive band leader, who once he was happy with his set up - including an attendant cup of tea - dug deep into some of his very best new songs, as well as enjoying his own arrangement of a brace of covers by Abba and Bowie and a handful of rearranged early career classics.

But it was the early set, catchy melody of the ‘Invisible Man' from the ‘Rain' album that set the standard for the evening. Stripped to a bare bones format with only a beat box to augment the trio, Jackson relied essentially on some intuitive piano work and his own strong voice backed by well arranged backing vocals to bring to life a range of characters, moods and emotions.

In effect the set was anchored by the melancholic midway solo piece, ‘Solo (So Low)'. On the album it seems a tad self indulgent played live it is imbued with a completely different kind of emotion. As Joe explained in a brief prelude to the song the title refers to both to a feeling isolation and also to the level to which you can descend, and his voicing of those emotion was sheer perfection, the stuff of a mature wordsmith and confident performer.

He added a further dimension to his piano playing on the evocative New Orleans feel of ‘Dirty Martini' and rounded things off with the beautiful waltz time 'A Place in the Rain'. Such is the depth of Joe catalogue now that there was no room for 'I'm the Man' but the fans rejoiced in the skanked up version of the ever poignant 'Is She Really Going Out With Him' - complete with a perfunctory ending - and they finally took to their feet for the aptly titled solo finale 'Slow Song'.

In fact this was a gig that started brightly but for some reason it took the crowd a while to warm up. The evening was ultimately transformed into a triumph by a succession of great songs performed with real gusto by one of the most underrated wordsmiths and musicians of our age.


Review by Pete Feenstra

Album review

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