By photojournalist Jeffrey Moellering
Joe Jackson brought his tightly honed 4-man band to the elegant Mediterranean themed Tampa Theatre on June 21st, as part of his Sing, You Sinners! tour, which began in Ireland and wraps up in Charleston, SC on June 25th. This is Joe’s first tour since 2019, and it features the band that played on Jackson’s last album Fool, with Teddy Kumpel (Guitar, Vocals), Doug Yowell (Drums), and Graham Maby, who has been Jackson’s bassist since his 1979 debut album. You could say that a lot has changed in the 5 decades since Jackson was called a “brash new wave Brit rocker”, alongside the likes of Elvis Costello, XTC, and The English Beat. His career has spanned 20 albums ranging from post-punk, to pop, big band, jazz, Latin, and classical, yet somehow, he’s found a way to meld them together into a coherent and expressive catalog that keeps his fans coming back for more.
Jackson is no longer the front man with the microphone and alto saxophone, directing the band, as he stays behind the piano, but he manages to blend enough of his classic songs with recent releases into fresh arrangements that make for a very entertaining evening of music. The bandmembers may now be in their 60s, but they play with a verve and panache of players 30 years younger.
Jackson started off the evening with a mix of six early and recent tunes to set a snappy tone, drummer Doug Yowell providing driving rhythms to grab the crowd’s attention, making clear that Joe was still in firm possession of his legendary wit and snarl. The poignant and geographically correct “Big Black Cloud”, including the lyric “Hey hey, today’s another day, gonna ride the lawn mower down to Tampa Bay, let’s go, come on let’s go!”, seems to be a call to escape the drudgery of routine, which has been a theme through his compositions.
Joe then quieted down the room to play four songs solo, including his classic “Real Men”, which 40 years later is as topical as ever, exploring issues of sex and gender identity. He also played an expressive version of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, mentioning that he thought of it that day and decided he wanted to play it. Perhaps seeing all the construction and change in downtown Tampa reminded him of the “paving paradise and put up a parking lot” refrain of the song. After that comparatively contemplative portion, the full band retuned for a spirited eight songs, including the namesake of the tour, Tony Bennett’s 1955 “Sing You Sinners”, which is perfectly in keeping with Joe’s wry wit, eschewing a button-down approach, in favor of wringing every last drop of fun and mischief out of life’s pageantry.
After eighteen songs in total, Joe left the stage to screaming fans that urged them back for more, and the band returned for two encores, including the always rousing “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)”, and a very sophisticated re-arrangement of his most popular song, “Steppin’ Out”. Jackson’s band members are skilled vocalists, and they get a remarkably full sound from a four-piece band, doing very complex harmonies as well as acapella arrangements.
While it would be a real treat to see Joe in a big band format, with worldwide Covid, the costs, and complexities of such a tour, it’s probably not likely, so his longtime fans are thankful for this version of Joe. He’s still a fine composer, making superbly crafted and thoughtful songs that challenge the listener, and does a splendid job of producing a live performance that even the casual listener can appreciate. It’s very gratifying to witness artists of his caliber with an extensive catalog of music, a breadth of cultural understanding, and the ability to create new work that touches and nurtures the soul. There aren’t many of his stature that remain relevant, and Joe Jackson’s Tampa Theater performance stood as tall as the great blade marquee outside the majestic venue, honoring decades of musical tradition. Just maybe, sometimes you can indeed get what you want – a few tears, a few laughs, and a little jumpin’ jive.