You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Booker T./Note By Note

I guess I really should consider subscribing to a music magazine. The thing is, based on what I’ve seen, these publications mostly write about contemporary stuff that rarely interests me. If anyone has a great recommendation, please let me know. Why am I bringing it up? Because here’s another recently released album I completely missed. And while it only includes two new songs, I was immediately hooked when I started listening to the music a couple of days ago: Note By Note by Booker T. Yep, I’m talking about the man from Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

To start with, I think Booker T.’s love of music isn’t only obvious but also truly infectious. That’s why I dig the man! Witnessing him in action playing the keys of his Hammond B3 frequently gives me goosebumps. In case you haven’t watched it yet, check out Booker T.’s demo of the iconic organ I previously covered here. If you’re a music lover and curious about exploring instruments, tell me how you can not feel like wanting to have a friggin’ Hammond and, in case you don’t know how to play keyboards, figuring out yourself how to create these magic sounds or take lessons after watching this – heck, if I could afford it, I would even put a B3 in my living room as a beautiful piece of furniture!

Booker T

By the way, Booker T. has something else I admire: The man is a multi-instrumentalist. Two instruments (guitar, electric bass) was all I could handle to learn many moons ago and, frankly, while I guess I was on okay player when I was at my best, I was far away from mastery! According to Wikipedia, apart from his signature Hammond B3, Booker T. also knows how to play the oboe, saxophone, trombone and double bass. And let’s not forget about the piano, though one could say that’s perhaps less of a surprise, considering the organ, despite the significant differences between those two instruments. In fact, as you can learn from the above noted clip, it was the piano and lessons Booker T. took as a child with his teacher in Memphis, Tenn., which led him to discover the mighty Hammond. Great story, by the way, and one of various anecdotes he tells during the demo. Have I whetted your appetite to watch? 🙂

Released on November 1, Note By Note is a companion album to Booker T.’s memoir Time Is Tight, which was published by Little, Brown and Company and appeared on October 29. According to a press release, Note By Note celebrates and revisits a number of integral musical moments throughout Jones’ life – from playing with Mahalia Jackson at age 12, to his pivotal role as bandleader, performer and songwriter at Stax, to his focus on production through his work with Willie Nelson and Carlos Santana. The tracks largely mirror the chapter titles of the book. The memoir certainly sounds intriguing, and you can check out a review in The New York Times here. In this post, I’d like to focus on the music, so let’s get to it!

Booker T. 2

While I didn’t see any clips on YouTube, luckily, the album is available on Soundcloud. Here’s the excellent opener Cause I Love You, the first single released by Carla Thomas in 1960, a duet with her father Rufus Thomas, who also wrote the lyrics of the song. It also featured her brother Marvell Thomas on keyboards and, yes, you perhaps guessed it, Booker T. A 16-year-old high school student at the time, he played the tune’s opening notes on a borrowed barritone saxophone – his very first studio recording! The single was released by Satellite Records, which eventually became the legendary Stax Records. The cover on this album features Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet, two young talented vocalists who sound smoking hot!

While it’s very well known, I simply could not leave out Born Under A Bad Sign, the blues classic first recorded by Albert King at Stax in May 1967, and co-written by Booker T. and William Bell. It’s the only track on the album, featuring Booker T. on lead vocals. That’s a bit of a pity, in my opinion, since he has a quite soulful voice. Check it out! By the way, that nice guitar work comes from Booker T.’s son Ted Jones.

Another tune I have to call out is Precious Lord. Written by the Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel tune was recorded by Mahalia Jackson in March 1956 and became her signature song. The original complete title was Take My Hand, Precious Lord. As noted above, Booker T. got to perform with the famous gospel singer as a child – it’s not hard to see how that must have made a lasting impression on a 12-year-old! Check out the album’s powerful version featuring vocalist Sharlotte Gibson. Her voice together with the sparing instrumentation led by Booker T.’s Hammond is just beautiful! It makes me want to do a post to gospel music – so many powerful tunes in that genre!

So how about some Otis Redding? Ask and you shall receive! These Arms of Mine was written by Redding and initially released as his first single for Stax in October 1962. The song was also included on his debut album Pain In My Heat that appeared in March 1964. Redding, of course, was one of many Stax recording artists who were backed by Booker T. and the M.G.’s. This cover of the slow-tempo soul tune, which includes a piano part that reminds me a bit of Fats Domino, features Ty Taylor, another great vocalist who hails from New Jersey and is the leader of a soul rock band called Vintage Trouble. 

Next up: Havana Moon, a song written by Chuck Berry and first released in November 1956 as the B-side to his single You Can’t Catch Me. The tune also became the title track of a 1983 studio album by Carlos Santana, who appropriately gave it more of a Latin feel. That recording featured Booker T. The take on Note By Note is much closer to the Santana version than Berry’s original. In fact, Ted Jones’ guitar work is reminiscent of Santana – nicely done!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Maybe I Need Saving, one of the album’s two new tracks; the second one is called Paralyzed. Both were co-written by Ted Jones and feature him on vocals. I could not find information on who else was involved in writing these songs. At first, I was a little surprised about their inclusion on the album. Sure, Ted is Booker’s T.’s son, which is an obvious connection. But initially, I felt the more contemporary sound of these tracks created a bit of a disconnect to the other, older tunes. Yet, after fter having listened a few times, I actually think they are worthy tunes. Maybe I Need Saving has a nice bluesy touch, which once again features great guitar work by Ted, who has impressive guitar chops, and yet another illustration of Booker T.’s beautiful Hammond.

In addition to Ted Jones, Booker T.’s backing musicians on Note By Note include Steve Ferrone on drums (Average White Band, Tom Petty) and his longtime bandmate Melvin Brannon on bass. Booker T. is currently on the road to support the book and the record. Had I known about all of this a week earlier, perhaps I could have seen him at Le Poisson Rouge, a live music venue in New York City’s Greenwich Village – definitely a missed opportunity! Unfortunately, any of his remaining gigs are nowhere close to my location and include Salt Lake City (tonight), Phoenix (Jan. 8 & 9), Tucson (Jan. 10) and Nashville (Jan. 16). The schedule of all outstanding currently scheduled shows is here.

But not all may be lost. Booker T., who less than two weeks ago turned 75, is aging admirably and seems to be in decent health. So there still could be an opportunity for me to see the man – I would definitely love to, and preferably so at a small venue. Maybe he’ll read this and add some dates to his current tour that are within reasonable geographic reach! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Shoe Fire Media press release; New York Times; Booker T. website; Soundcloud

Santana Celebrates Africa On Seductive New Studio Album

Deep in the jungle, beyond the reach of greed/You hear the voices of spirits/With their frequency of light/Making sounds like the crackling of stars at night/Communicating with plants, animals and mankind/Affirming the universal truth…All and everything was conceived here in Africa/The cradle of civilization. These words, spoken by Carlos Santana, are the intro to his new album Africa Speaks that was released yesterday. After having listened to it for a couple of times, I’m pretty excited about the infectious grooves and Carlos’ guitar-playing, which continues to amaze me. This record is made for summer!

Appearing on Concord Records, Africa Speaks is Santana’s 25th studio album and his first with producer Rick Rubin. It was recorded together with Santana’s band at Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. The record also features two female singers with African heritage: Spanish vocalist María Concepción Balboa Buika, who goes by Buika, and on one track British singer Laura Mvula. Santana’s website characterizes the music as inspired by the melodies, sounds and rhythms of Africa, but in many ways, this is a classic Santana album combining Latin Afro-Cuban rhythms with Carlos’ mighty signature guitar sound.

Carlos Santana

In January, Santana told this to Rolling Stone about the upcoming album, which then was supposed to be titled Global Revelation: “I went to Rick to see if he would, as Miles Davis would say, ‘Would you have eyes to do something with me? I know you’ve worked with everybody like Johnny Cash and the Chili Peppers and Metallica,’ And he goes, ‘Well, what are you interested in doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing but African music.’ So can you believe it? We record 49 songs in 10 days. He was very gracious, because it was like a hurricane to record six, seven songs in a day. Rick said, ‘With Clive Davis, you had a bunch of guest stars and singers. Who do you want in here?’ I said, ‘I only want two women: Laura Mvula and Buika.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ So we called them and they said yes.”

Let’s get to some music. Here’s the opener Africa Speaks. The tune has a bit of a mysterious vibe to it. I also like how it builds. And once Santana comes in with his great guitar sound, man, the track just takes off!

Oye Este Mi Canto starts with a smooth laid back Latin jazz feel to it, with Buika shining on vocals. Then check out what happens at around 2 minutes and 28 seconds: Things pick up, with Santana coming in playing a great wah-wah guitar solo. And all for a sudden, it feels like going back 50 years to Woodstock. Then at around 3 minutes and 50 seconds, the song resumes its initial groove – so cool!

Here’s Blue Skies, the track featuring Laura Mvula, who is sharing vocals with Buika. Not sure why Apple Music and YouTube don’t mention her – either an embarrassing oversight or outright disrespectful!

Paraísos Quemados is one of my favorite tunes on the album. I just dig the funky groove and the excellent bassline by Benny Rietveld. As a Hammond fan, I also like what David K. Mathews is doing on the keys. Oh, and did I mention Carlos on guitar?

The last track I’d like to highlight is Breaking Down The Door, which according to a Rolling Stone review is a cover of the Calypso Rose song Abatina, written by Manu Chao. Another nice tune that perhaps is a bit more conventional compared to most other tracks that have more of a fusion feel to it.

This review would be incomplete without acknowledging Santana’s excellent backing band. In addition to the above mentioned bassist and keyboarder Rietveld and Mathews, respectively, the line-up features Carlos’ wife Cindy Blackman Santana (drums),  Tommy Anthony (guitars and vocals), Andy Vargas and Ray Greene (both vocals), as well as percussionists Karl Perazzo and Paoli Mejías.

So what does Rick Rubin think about the album and its making? “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he said during a filmed conversation. “Hearing it on record is one thing, but being in the room and watching it happen was another. I couldn’t imagine anyone who loves music sitting in the position I was in watching this not being blown away.”

“Carlos asked to meet and I had never met him before. He said he wanted to go into to the studio and start recording. And I said, ‘well, let’s talk about the songs and let’s listen to songs’ and he said, ‘well, I don’t really have any songs.’ And I said, ‘okay, interesting,’ and he said, ‘well, I have an idea.’ He played me some pieces of music and then he sent me an iPod filled with African music. And he said, ‘live with this for a little bit and then we’ll talk about it.’ I lived with it and it was fantastic!”

“And he said, ‘I think that’s the energy of what I wanna do, and I wanna start by jamming with the band, using these kinds of rhythms and see where it goes.’ Very unusual to work for me in that way. Usually, the song comes first, and the studio is more about documenting the thing we already know how it’s gonna go. In in this case, it was really, we went to the studio completely blank, jamming on these instrumental pieces, and it was really great – really, really great!” You can watch the full clip here.

I have to say this album has reignited my enthusiasm about Carlos Santana and makes me feel like seeing again.  There would definitely be opportunity this year. Later this month, Santana is embarking on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his 1999 Supernatural studio album. While it definitely resulted in a resurgence of his career, I’m not particularly fond of this record and much prefer his first three albums with the classic Santana band. Santana is also playing two Woodstock-related festivals in August, which I likely can’t afford. But he told People he is planning a series of dates next year to support his new album. Now, that may be something worthwhile looking into.

Sources: Wikipedia, Santana website, Rolling Stone, People, YouTube

Joe Jackson At State Theatre NJ: Looking Sharp And Still The Man

I almost would have missed Joe Jackson, just like my recent Who concert. Here’s to hoping that my apparent lack of music attention doesn’t become a trend, though it would probably not hurt my wallet! 🙂 Wait, what did I want to say? Right, the British artist who they called an “angry young man” when he broke through with his studio debut Look Sharp! in January 1979. While I don’t know whether Jackson was pissed then, he certainly doesn’t look angry to me these days! Instead, the man who once sang, “Everybody wants a happy ending,” comes across as feeling very comfortable in his skin and happy to still be making music people want to hear. I suppose that’s really all you can ask for as an artist!

By the time Jackson’s ongoing Four Decade Tour registered on my radar screen, all tickets I could afford seemed to be gone, and I just wasn’t willing to throw hundreds of bucks at some greedy reseller!  Then I received an email from State Theatre New Jersey, a nice midsize venue in New Brunswick, cheerfully announcing Jackson’s gig there. I thought, ‘what the hell,’ so checked out the situation one more time. And, voila, while there weren’t many seats left, I managed to get one without losing my blue shirt. Last night was showtime – and, yes, you probably already guessed it, after 40 years as a professional recording artist, Jackson continued to look sharp and proofed he’s definitely still the man!

“So, here comes a big tour,” Jackson said in an announcement last October. “We want to celebrate the fact that this is happening after 40 years – anything else, would be like sulking in a room by yourself on your own birthday party. Looking for some way to organize a show out of 40 years’ worth of material, I decided to draw on five albums, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (1979) Night And Day (1982) Laughter And Lust (1991) Rain (2008) and Fool (2019). We’ll also throw in a couple of songs from other albums and some new covers. I can’t wait. Let’s party.”

Joe Jackson and Band 2019
Joe Jackson and band (from left): Jackson, Graham Maby, Doug Yowell and Teddy Kumpel

And, boy, what a party it was! In addition to singing splendid lead vocals, Jackson played keyboards – something I read he typically didn’t do during past tours. If that’s true, it was certainly great he changed his mind this time. After all, he’s a true musician and multi-instrumentalist, who spent three years in his late teens and early twenties at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying composition, piano and percussion. During that period, Jackson also learned jazz at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. Apart from writing pop-oriented songs in genres like punk, new wave, rock, jazz and Latin, Jackson has also composed classical music. The question really becomes what the man has NOT done musically!

Once again the notion that great musicians tend to play with other great musicians turned out to be true. Jackson’s backing band was simply top-notch! The first guy I need to call out here is Graham Maby – and yes, I’m probably bassed, I mean biased. One of my favorite bassists, Maby still has a superb tone and a great sense for rhythmic and melodic basslines. Paul McCartney is who I wanna be when I grow up, but I’d also happily settle with Maby! 🙂 Jackson’s long-time friend and musical collaborator effectively drove the groove together with excellent drummer Doug Yowell, who by the way hails from New Jersey. They really breed musicians in the Garden State – just sayin’! Last but not least, Teddy Kumpel did an outstanding job on guitar. Man, what a fucking great band! Okay, I think it’s time to get to some music, shall we?

The set kicked off with Alchemy, the closer from Jackson’s great new album Fool,  released this January, and then launched right into the furious One More Time, the opener from his debut Look Sharp! – a cool 40-year jump back in time, not to mention style, and a nice illustration of the band’s versatility. I thought Kumpel’s guitar-playing shined in particular during the more rock-oriented tunes. Unfortunately, my smartphone outsmarted me at the wrong time, so I’m relying on another clip I found that cut off the beginning of Alchemy, but it still gives a good impression of the tune.

Jackson’s new album featured prominently in the show with three tracks, one of which (Alchemy) was repeated at the very end, providing nice bookends to the set. I have to say the new songs absolutely held up to his older, better known material. Here’s Fabulously Absolute, a rocker that was also released as a single. Stylistically, the tune isn’t that much different from Jackson’s first two albums. Whatever genre the man plays, he always has a great ear for catchy melodies, though he never aspired to become a pop star and never did – at least not in the traditional sense.

Next is a track from an album I don’t know well: Goin’ Downtown from Laughter And Lust,  released in April 1991. The tune is co-credited to Jackson and a British singer-songwriter named Drew Barfield.

My personal highlight of the evening was a medley of three songs: A cover of Rain by The Beatles, Invisible Man and It’s Different For Girls. Jackson announced it by saying they are now playing the title track from an album called Rain (January 2008). He dryly added no such track exists, so they borrowed it, deciding to change some of the chords. Invisible Man is the opener of Rain, a fantastic song I frankly had forgotten about, which reminds me a little bit of Steely Dan. Apparently, Jackson digs the Dan; in fact, later in the show, he covered King Of The World from Countdown To Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore album from July 1973. And then there’s It’s Different For Girls, featuring Jackson’s lyrics reversing the stereotypical roles of men and women when it comes to sex and love – one of two tunes he played from I’m The Man.

His sophomore release from October 1979 remains my favorite Joe Jackson album. In fact, it was my introduction to him when I received it as a birthday present in July 1980. I own the vinyl record to this day, and it’s still in perfect shape! Instead of relying on his band, Jackson treated the audience to a solo performance of It’s Different For Girls. Okay, nuff said! This is a long clip, and the video is sometimes out of focus, but, hey, it least it’s authentic! Plus, the sound is pretty decent and, most of all, the musicianship is just outstanding. What I’m trying to say in so many words is if you dig Jackson, you should watch the friggin’ clip!

Another Jackson tune I’ve always liked is You Can’t Get What You Want. It appeared on his March 1984 gem Body And Soul blending pop, jazz and Latin. Even though the horns from the studio version are “missing” and Jackson plays their fill-ins on keyboards instead, I think the band does a beautiful job capturing the tune. Check out Kumpel’s funky guitar, which is really cool!

The last track of the regular set was I’m The Man. The title track from Jackson’s sophomore album was another highlight of the evening, which once again showed this band can rock. Not surprisingly, it brought the audience up to their feet!

The regular set was followed by a three-track encore, starting with Jackson’s biggest hit: Steppin’ Out, from the Night And Day album released in June 1982. I’m not a fan of drum machines, and that aspect has always bothered me about an otherwise great tune; but I just couldn’t resist filming it, especially after Jackson noted they’re about to do something truly shocking – playing a song almost exactly the way it appears on an album! Jackson is known for altering studio tracks for live performances, which has frustrated some of his fans in the past – a fact he acknowledged during the announcement of the tune, teasingly adding he doesn’t quite get it, since it’s so much fun changing up songs.

Next a roadie walked out on stage, carrying a small box. It was the original drum machine Jackson had used for the recording. He proudly explained he got that drum machine in 1979, adding it’s pretty much impossible to get this gear nowadays. On Night And Day, Jackson played all of the instruments by himself, except for the drum snare, which doubled the drum machine’s snare, a natural task for Yowell. Jackson also explained the other instruments on the studio recording, including a Glockenspiel that last night was played by Maby. Of course, they also had the programmed synthesizer bassline – again, something else I’m less than fond of! Kumpel took over the organ part on the keyboards, while Jackson handled the electric piano. The following clip captures some of Jackson’s introductory explanations. If you’re bit of a music nerd like I am, this footage may be for you.

Joe Jackson is definitely worthwhile seeing, and I’m glad I finally did so! The ongoing second U.S. leg of the Four Decade Tour lasts until June 1. Some of the upcoming gigs include Miami (May 24), New Orleans (May 28), Houston (May 29) and Dallas (June 1). Afterwards, Jackson is returning to Europe, with shows in Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The last date on the current schedule is Tel Aviv, Israel on July 28.

Sources: Wikipedia, Joe Jackson website, Setlist.fm, YouTube