Town Hall, Birmingham ~ I love the 80s. I grew up in the 80s. It was my time, and it was bound to happen sooner or later, that I would get an 80s icon to review, and tonight was the night. Howard Jones sails into Birmingham (despite Birmingham been 80 miles inland!) in the middle of a 13-day tour of the UK before he heads off to Europe.
Unlike previous tours, this time he offers a twist in the tail, because this one is all acoustic. Gone are the myriad of keyboards that Howard is normally surrounded by. This time there is just the one. He is however ably assisted by Nick Beggs of Kajagoogoo fame, on bass guitar and Chapman stick (nope, me neither but bear with me, I’ve already Googled it) and Robin Boult (Roger Daltrey, Dave Stewart and Fish - wow, Fish, what ever happened to Fish from Marillion?) sorry, I digress… on guitar.
A quick check shows that Howard hasn’t been idle in the 30 odd years since his heyday, in fact the guy has been producing albums year in, year out, but unless you’re a diehard fan you just don’t know it. Tonight, we will be treated to a selection of tunes from the latest offering ‘Dialogue’ which is number three in a set of four electronic albums that Jones has been working on over the past few years and a good selection of hits from the back catalogue as well, because it’s in the rules and something’s just have to be done.
We start with ‘Assault and Battery’ and ‘Specialty’ before the first of the tunes from said new album appear. ‘Formed By The Stars’ happens to be Howard‘s favourite and he tells us that “he wasn’t sure if it would transfer to an acoustic version”… But it does.
'Don't Always Look at the Rain’ was done in a jazz stylee and included a fabulous solo on acoustic guitar from Robin, but then we get served a curved ball. Howard formally introduces us to Nick Beggs - with the most eclectic range of bass guitars I’ve ever seen, including the ‘Chapman Stick’ (which is just the neck of a normal bass guitar, the bottom bit having been chopped off, twice the width though, as it has 10 or 12 strings and can plug into synthesisers for a greater range of sounds – got that ?, make sense ?, nope, me neither. Just know that it looks quite cool and sounds good) and we get treated to his (some would say only), big hit, ‘Too Shy’, - No. 1 in 15 countries, who knew? - which Birmingham remembers well and sings along to it as if it were only yesterday - and all despite the fact that Howard stopped the song halfway through due to some idiot shining a camera light into his eyes, causing Security to freak. Ever the professionals they are though, they start it again at the middle eight, and it was all forgotten by the end.
By now we were realising that Jones had been quite creative with many of the songs to make them ‘acoustic friendly’. ‘Life in One Day’ was spiced up at the end with a bit of boogie woogie which Birmingham loved. Jones tells us that this was the track he was meant to play at Live Aid. He was rehearsing backstage with his backing singers Afrodisiac featuring Caron Wheeler, when two people came out of their dressing rooms to watch them… and they were none other than David Bowie and Pete Townsend which for Jones was as seminal a moment as playing Live Aid itself.
‘Like to Get to Know You Well’ is properly funkified and Jones tells us the inspiration came from his belief that “it’s hard to make friends with people from different nations and backgrounds and all he wants is for the world to get on”. It was pleasing to hear Jones hit all the high notes as there were many but by now it was a bit academic as Birmingham were in full flow and did most of it for him anyway.
‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was done salsa style, but ‘New Song’ and ‘What is Love’ followed along more traditional lines but lent themselves to the acoustic vein extremely well and all paid homage to the 12” versions that Jones was so well known for back in the day. Hearing stuff done like this - and oh, so well - inspires you to go out and buy the back catalogue which’ll cost you a fortune as there’s so much - or I could pin my hopes on Jones releasing a live version of the tour. This truly was a masterclass in musicianship from the three of them.
More came in a 17-tune set in all, but in time-honoured fashion the time had come for an encore. Now I’ve been desperately hoping ‘Pearl in the Shell’ would get an outing but having heard Howard explain that some songs just don’t lend themselves to acoustic arrangements, I feared that I was going to be disappointed. And it came to pass, that I was. Final tune of the evening was ‘Hide and Seek’ (samba style) which is no surprise as Howard tells us that it’s his most favourite song of all and why most of his gigs finish with it. On this basis I was always going to be outdone.
And so, it was. A fine way to spend a Thursday evening, which just leaves me to head back North with ‘Pearl in the Shell’ blasting out as I head up the M6 - well, I wasn’t going to be outdone forever, was I ?
Written for Rock at Night Magazine