1. Jones juggles classic hits with intriguing covers and fresh bits.
The last few times English pop star Howard Jones performed in Cleveland (Jacobs Pavilion, Trinity Cathedral, etc.) he was accompanied by a drummer (Jonathan Atkinson) and secondary keyboardist (Robbie Bronnimann).
But “Hojo” played solo Wednesday night at Music Box Supper Club on the Flats West Bank as part of his ongoing Songs and Stories tour, rendering one memorable melody after another on a Roland electric piano.
At 63, the formerly spiky-haired musician seems to accept that fans still want to hear all his old hits at least as much as anything new he might have to offer—a la the 2009 album Ordinary Heroes and 2015’s experimental Engage. So he juggled ‘80s hits with here-and-now nuggets (and killer covers) all by his lonesome, cushioning the selections with amusing anecdotes and an easygoing banter that made audience members feel like they were in Jones’ parlor for some tunes and tea.
2. Jones is a classically-trained human, not just a synth cyborg. Oh, and he’s funny as hell, too.
Jones may have established himself as a one-man act in the early ‘80s, surrounding himself with banks of sequencers and drum machines to help recreate those bouncy humdingers from Human’s Lib (1983) and Dream Into Action (1985). But on this occasion, he leaned on his strengths as a classically-trained pianist with fluid finger-work and tasteful timing. Selections like the earnest “You Know I Love You…Don’t You?” picturesque “Prisoner” and Duncan Sheik-cowritten “Someone You Need” came off more Beethoven than Bauhaus, and—stripped of their state-of-the-art studio window dressing—became showpieces for Jones’ compositional skills and vocal prowess. He was always more than just a New Wave keyboard wizard; he’s a gifted songwriter.
Moreover, Jones’ chatter was given mostly to taking the piss out of himself: His recollections of early fame and middle-age insecurity revealed a vulnerable, sensitive side that most chart-topping rock stars keep hidden from public view. He joked about his “disturbed” hairstyle, trying to buy coffee at Starbucks with a cell-phone app and his dodgy piano notes during Live Aid. He spoke of his admiration for Keith Emerson (ELP) and David Bowie, initial rejection by record labels and his elation when he was signed by Warner Bros. and recruited for Ringo Starr’s touring band. He also recalled sharing a helicopter with members of Queen, doing a private gig for Princess Diana, coaching Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets” and marveling at Brian Wilson’s stage-side armchair.
Jones really is as blue-collar as the rest of us, too: He said he worked in a Saran-Wrap factory before quitting his studies at university to pursue his rock and roll fantasy full-time.
“I got fed up playing dead people’s music!” he laughed.
3. Howard’s still taking chances.
Jones contributed music to the soundtrack for last year’s Eddie and the Eagle film. He didn’t play any of that last night, but he did peel off the bright, buoyant “We’re In This Together,” from the upcoming John Krasinski / Emily Blunt animated feature Animal Crackers.
Later, he gave the crowd a choice between cover songs. Winning selection “Careless Whisper” was a touching tribute to George Michael, but Jones also sampled enough of the other picks—The Beatles “Blackbird” and Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”—to sate ‘60s aficionados. The newer ballad “Even If I Don’t Say” was an elegant, heartwarming musical missive and “Hide and Seek” a misty-eyed elegy for a brighter tomorrow.
4. The hits sound better than ever.
Jones encouraged onlookers to contribute “wolf howls” on “Life In One Day” (Oooooh, ohh!) and quoted Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain” during “Everlasting Love.” Everyone was singing along by show’s end, chiming in for encores "What Is Love?,” “No One Is to Blame” and bouncy “Things Can Only Get Better.”
All Howard’s hits can be found on his latest compilation, the three-disc Best: 1983-2017.
Sure, there was a pinch of nostalgia to the Music Box proceedings—but Jones made each tune feel very of-the-moment and in-the-present, too. That’s the mark of a good entertainer.
5. Fun, frisky opener Rachael Sage plays a kazoo solo.
Songbird Rachael Sage supported Jones with a half hour of pretty, powerful numbers that showcased her piano chops, vocal range…and willingness to get weird.
Hailing from New York’s East Village / Port Chester area, Sage studied dance and earned her degree in drama at Stanford University. But the compositionally-inclined teen found it hard to abandon all the original songs she’d recorded at home on a four-track cassette machine (a gift for her bat mitzvah).
It wasn’t long before her work won her a spot on the Village Stage at Lilith Fair, opening for stars like Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin and Sheryl Crow.
Sage played the title track on a Casio keyboard (bedazzled with stickers), then moved on to “Spark” before switching to acoustic guitar. Kelly Halloran accompanied on violin, background vocals and hand-claps (“Haunted by Objects”).
“I didn’t account for the utensils at sound check!" smiled Sage, surveying the early-arriving dinner patrons.
Fans of Ani DiFranco, Regina Spektor and Tori Amos would benefit from an earful of Sage’s ever-expanding catalog, from 1996’s Morbid Romantic to 2016’s Choreographic. The ex-ballerina has terrific chops and topical lyrics—and isn’t afraid to decorate her ditties with finger-snaps (“Myopia”) or kazoo (“I Don’t Believe It”).