When 80’s pop-synth icons go acoustic, does the material hold up? That depends, of course, on the quality of the underlying song structure. In Howard Jones’ case, his songs have plenty of substance to offer his audience, even if he’s only using his voice and a piano as he’s been doing at smaller venues in recent years. In this special short-lived Acoustic Trio tour, he brings along two friends to have a bit more fun with the arrangements: Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo, The Mute Gods, Steven Wilson Band) and Robin Boult (Fish). For the show at the well-attended Lincoln Theater in Fort Collins, Colorado, the older crowd streaming into their seats likely were teenagers in the ’80’s as Jones rose to fame. Even the pre-show music in the lobby focuses on one-hit-wonder bands from that decade, most of whom didn’t have the extended impact of Jones’ discography.
The tour is a curious one: only six cities, most of them in Colorado, then two nights in Oakland and two more in Maui. The timing is even more unexpected, given that Jones is readying a May release of new album Transform which is kind of a “back to roots” affair of synth-driven material, after which he will tour with a full electric band. So perhaps this is just the appetizer before that tour. If so, it’s an equally nourishing meal, filled with most of the hits that made Jones popular, along with inventive arrangements and engaging stories.
Opening with “Pearl in the Shell”, the first couple of songs are fairly straight forward but as the night progresses, the arrangements and banter become increasingly engaging. Truly, the stories about each song he performs are what makes a show like this uniquely special. Jones regales us with tales such as how “Like to Get to Know You Well” was very unfortunately translated in Japanese into “Like to Force Myself Upon You”, to the story of how his first single “What Is Love?” made a very slow climb up the charts, settling at #45 until a lucky break of other more popular artists’ unavailability got him invited to “Top of the Pops”, after which the song continued its rise and along with it, his career. Perhaps inspired by the popularity of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” portrayal of Live Aid, Jones recounts his own Live Aid experiences, from being complimented by his idol David Bowie (“he actually knew who I was!!!”) to having the stadium sing along with him on the chorus of “Hide and Seek”, a song that wasn’t even a hit single, and which he bravely chose to play solo on piano when everyone thought he was only a synth-guy.
Nearly 35 years after that solo performance at Live Aid, the songs still hold up on piano, sometimes delightfully so. Jones makes the most of the setting and jazzes up “Don’t Always Look At the Rain”, with inspired solos from Boult on guitar and Beggs on Chapman Stick. Yes, you read that right: Chapman Stick. Jones commends Beggs for being “one of the only musicians on the planet who dares play the that instrument on stage and makes it sound brilliant.” Although Beggs is also one of the world’s premier bass players (as Jones further lauded, “He’s voted Top Bassist for years in a row!!!”), he really enjoys stretching out on the unusual Chapman Stick which gives a bassist the range of a guitarist and more, becoming both a rhythmic and melodic instrument at the same time. A tall, imposing blond who strides on stage wearing a kilt, Beggs knows how to make an impression both in appearance and performance.
The Trio have fun with some unexpected choices like a wonderful rendition of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” where Jones nearly channels Elvis at times, and later on for a rousing “Come Together”. Jones also throws in a rarity or two, like “Specialty” which has ever-changing time signatures that can be odd in a synth-band setting, but which pose no challenge for his talented Trio. Occasionally the lead synth line is missed, like on “Life in One Day”, but the intimacy of the stories and charm more than make up for it. There’s a loose feeling to the show, in the best sense of the word, and the musicians confirm with me after the show that Jones always keeps them guessing as to where he’s going to go next so they have to watch him like a hawk. This is what makes live music so special – it’s not a re-creation of a studio album counted in on a click track, but rather is talented musicians creating magic live in the moment. Jones is clearly enjoying the freedom of this setting, even as he tears through one hit after another: “Everlasting Love”, “No One is to Blame”, “Things Can Only Get Better” and more, each accompanied by a story or an explanation and assessment of his own lyrics. His voice is in fine form and of course imbues the songs with their characteristic identity; he could be accompanied by a lone accordion and it would still sound just like Howard Jones with that voice intact.
The underlying joy of this concert is Jones’ message: we all have a special gift that we bring to the world. For the closing encore of “New Song”, he again brings this message home. All of his stories and songs are united in that regard, indeed it seems to be his underlying mission to inspire others to believe in themselves. You don’t have to be a rock star to prove it, you can find it in everything you see. As the “Hide and Seek” lyrics say: Hope you find it.
Howard Jones Acoustic Trio Setlist
Pearl in the Shell / Assault and Battery / Don’t Always Look at the Rain / What Is Love? / Specialty / No One Is to Blame / Hide and Seek / Oh! Darling (The Beatles cover) / Life in One Day / Exodus / Come Together / Everlasting Love / Like to Get to Know You Well / Things Can Only Get Better / New Song