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He’s the Man

By Kirsten Ferguson

Joe Jackson, Thea Gilmore

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Oct. 30

I have a chronic inability to write a completely happy song or a completely sad song,” Joe Jackson said during his Troy Savings Bank Music Hall show last Thursday, telling the packed audience the story behind “Solo (So Low),” a woeful new song from his latest album Rain that paints a somber portrait of a blue period during the songwriter’s life. “It’s sort of a wrist-slasher,” he joked, but one lessened by the sentiment that when things get bad, the “way to deal with it is to stop taking yourself so seriously.”

During his well-received concert in the frescoed music hall, Jackson appeared to take his own advice: Although the performance, often quite gratifying, wasn’t always perfect, he shook off any minor missteps in good-humored fashion. “We started with the slowest song we know and we’re going to gradually speed up” to compensate for acoustic challenges in the space, he explained, after set-opener “Not Here, Not Now,” a bittersweet breakup ballad from 1984’s Body and Soul. Jackson followed with a reworked version of his dubbed-out classic, “Fools in Love,” contorting his face and laughing when he blanked out on a portion of the 30-year-old lyrics.

The British songwriter—a legend, to employ the overused term—first walked onto the stage in a dapper beige suit, looking unexpectedly tall, and gave an understated little bow before taking a seat behind the piano, where he remained for the rest of the evening, occasionally pausing to sip from a cup of herbal tea. Bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton, longtime bandmates of Jackson’s going back to the 1970s, accompanied him, with Houghton’s kit shielded behind a Plexiglas screen to blunt the reverb.

Given the pianocentric, guitarless lineup, and Jackson’s concerns about muddling the sound by rocking at full force, the set favored the smooth soul-jazz of Jackson’s more stylized pop tunes: “Chinatown,” from his chart-topping 1982 album Night and Day, percolated with a dramatic tribal groove; the trio managed to out-lounge Becker and Fagen (that’s not easy to do) on a Latinized cover of Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years”; and the hit “Steppin’ Out” meandered a bit but still resonated with its unforgettable melody and pulsating bass line.

Throughout, you could tell the angry rocker from Jackson’s new-wave past was itching to make an appearance. It did when the trio upped the tempo for “On Your Radio,” Jackson pounding extra hard on the keys, and on the frantic bust-up lament “One More Time,” which found Maby and Houghton chiming in with impassioned backup vocals. “Citizen Sane,” one of a handful of newer tunes deployed from Rain, fit right in with acerbic rockers of yore; at the close of the seething pop song, Jackson titled his head back and yelped a satisfied “yeah.”

The crowd favorite “Is She Really Going Out with Him”—with audience members relishing their role of shouting “where” for every one of Jackson’s “see over there”—and a slightly sappish “A Slow Song” closed out the show; before he left the stage, Jackson paused for a moment, looked out on the crowd and smiled, as if to let the applause fully sink in.

“I wrote this song in solidarity with Joan,” explained Thea Gilmore, a promising young British singer-songwriter who opened the show. In 2004, Gilmore accompanied folk singer Joan Baez on the road across the United States at presidential election time. “As you can imagine, she was not very happy,” Gilmore quipped, before leading the crowd in a rousing sing-along to her own forceful protest song, “Are You Ready?”

American Classics

Tim O’Brien

The Linda, Oct. 31

The chorus of old-time fiddle chestnut “Cotton-Eyed Joe” runs, “Where did you come from/Where did you go/Where did you come from/Cotton Eyed Joe.” But when Grammy-winning bluegrass singer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Tim O’Brien, who performed last Friday at a full WAMC Performing Arts Studio, sang “World of Trouble,” his self-penned song about the politically manufactured climate of fear in America, he quoted the line and drew laughter with the hilarious twist of substituting Osama Bin Laden for Cotton-Eyed Joe. Sure, those who fastidiously preserve folk-music traditions are to be respected, but performers like O’Brien who can update them, and with consummate musicianship to boot, must be cheered on.

It being Halloween, O’Brien emerged from the stage door looking simply divine in a woman’s red-haired, pageboy-cut wig and carrying an acoustic guitar. Already onstage were a five-string banjo, a fiddle, and an archtop bouzouki, all of which he would play flawlessly.

The 54-year-old Nashville native and Hot Rize alumnus opened with Roger Miller’s snappy country classic “Kansas City Star,” a ditty about a TV cowboy who doesn’t want to leave his local market for the better gig he has on offer. O’Brien’s resonant tenor vocals were in top form, and for his solo break he deftly flatpicked a lead line in the bass interspersed with treble chords reminiscent of the Carter Scratch technique. From there he played a traditional Irish song of seafaring from his Hot Rize days, “Colleen Malone,” his clear voice hitting the throat-busting high notes with ease.

To mark the holiday, a pair of ghost songs followed: “Restless Spirit Wandering” was about the ghost of a fallen young Confederate soldier whom O’Brien claims haunts his former Nashville home. The audience was then invited to join in on a slow, elegiac rendition of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil.”

O’Brien later played fiddle on a propulsive medley of Southern Appalachian reels—“Sandy River Belle,” “The Kitchen Girls,” and “My Love Is in America”—and expertly frailed the banjo on, among other things, a version of Lonnie Johnson’s blues tune “Little Rocking Chair.”

It’s worth noting that several of the area’s best acoustic pickers turned out for the show. If Tim O’Brien is a performer who can wow the connoisseurs, the rank-and-file listeners must have been overwhelmed. I was left a critic with nothing to criticize, which was fine with me.

—Glenn Weiser

Photo: Julia Zave

Toot Your Own Horn

Hip-hop, R&B, and rock & roll collided at the Washington Avenue Armory on Saturday. Long-running Philadelphia band the Roots, led by rapper Black Thought (pictured, without tuba), and second-wave rap-rock act Gym Class Heroes, are currently co-headlining a tour which brought them to Albany last weekend. Up-and-coming British singer Estelle opened the show; she’s currently riding the international success of the single “American Boy,” though we’re told the song’s guest MC—Kanye West—was not in the house on this night.



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