By Mark Guarino
When angry young men turn intellectual sophisticates, mass audiences typically yawn and wait for the requisite return to form. But for Joe Jackson, who fronted the British New Wave in the late 1970’s alongside other knuckles-out romantics such as Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, it’s been a long wait.
He spent his middle career recording big band jazz, symphonic music, quasi-classical pop and other esotery, but only in the past few years did he u-turn to his roots: sleek, swinging, beat-peppy pop. At the Vic Wednesday, the first of two consecutive nights, Jackson arrived with two-thirds of his original band: bassist Graham Maby and drummer Dave Houghton. The trio dug into Jackson’s 29-year catalog and songs from “Rain” (Rykodisc), a new album, but while the reunited sound and players may register as nostalgia in some sectors, for Jackson, it sounded like a renewal.
His rhythm section clawed through songs, fattening the bottoms while making the tops more elastic. Songs like “Obvious Song,” “Too Tough” and “Steppin’ Out” were reworked to deepen the groove — on the latter, Maby set his bass in a lead player’s position while Houghton flipped the tension on its end by playing in double time. Their efforts whipped the songs, especially familiar chestnuts, into unfamiliar territory, the romance given a nervous edge.
As one of rock’s famously cantankerous characters and esoteric minds, Jackson, 57, appeared completely at ease, even cheery, with this new visceral presentation of his songs. The show slowed for a solitary moment — “Solo (So Low),” which combined operatic flourishes with what Jackson described as “complete, utter, suicidal gloom” Otherwise, for most of the night Jackson less assumed the role as the main personality and more as a leader of a small jazz combo.
On “Goin’ Downtown,” the band rolled through shifting styles, from Gershwin to Professor Longhair, while frenzied new songs like “The Uptown Train” swung with jubilant confidence, ending with Maby and Jackson sharing a duet in the lower registers. “It’s Different For Girls,” became a crafty pop suite, while “Dirty Martini,” a tribute to the New Orleans second line.
That’s not to say everything was precision. A cover of David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” became a two-fist pounder on the 88’s, ending in noisy sprawl. Even unraveled, the group kept interchanging ideas, keeping up with each other like a chase in the mud.