Joe Jackson lets it all hang out at the Keswick

Sam Adams

Updated: Monday, October 19, 2015, 6:43 PM

If his contemporary Elvis Costello was an angry young man, Joe Jackson was old before his time, already weary of the world when his debut album Look Sharp! was released in 1979. But 17 albums later, on his newly released Fast Forward, the 61-year-old Jackson sounds more philosophical than embittered, reflecting on "how the game goes on forever, it's just the uniforms that change."

At the Keswick Theatre on Saturday night, Jackson strode onto the stage in gleaming shoes and silk socks that could have been an homage to his first album's iconic cover art. His two-hour set, which he began alone at the piano before being joined by longtime bassist Graham Maby, as well as guitarist Teddy Kumpel and Doug Yowell, ranged all the way from the beginning — "One More Time," Look Sharp's opening track — to the end (so far), Fast Forward's Beethoven-quoting closer "Ode to Joy." "Time," he told the audience between songs, "is a relentless evil bastard who doesn't care about you... So you might as well have as much fun as you can while you're here."

Fast Forward was originally conceived as a series of four EPs, each recorded in a different city around the world. "No one wanted to do that," Jackson admitted, so instead he ended up with a 16-track album, in which the influences range from Weimar cabaret to New Orleans jazz. The latter held sway as well over a boogie-woogie version of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," while a cover of Television's "See No Evil," its dueling guitar lines stripped down to Maby's sinuous bass, paid tribute to Jackson's tumultuous romance with New York City — a city he lived in, then quit in disgust over the spread of smoking bans.

Jackson's recordings, especially those where he lets his affinity for vintage jazz hold sway, can be prisoners of their own fussiness, but at the Keswick, he it let it all hang out. After a bum note and some scrambled lyrics put a ding in a few early songs, he quipped, "This is live music — you can't download this." For the encores, he dusted off a vocal version, originally recorded by Sarah Vaughan, of the Peter Gunn theme (known to '80s arcade habitués as the background music from Spy Hunter). That kitschy curiosity, he said, might have been his pick for a British newspaper that asked him to name a musical guilty pleasure, except "I don't believe that pleasure should have anything to do with guilt." It doesn't quite play out that way in Jackson's own songs, which even at their most hedonistic never drop the protective layer of wry reserve.

But there's always been a romantic behind the sardonic quips, hoping the world will be better and wounded when it isn't, and Jackson's more willing than ever to let that bruised idealism show.

Sam Adams

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