Howard Jones

O2 Empire Shepherds Bush, London – 21st April 2012

"A rare talent for composing an unforgettable pop song"

Apparently, Howard Jones is 57. I say 'apparently' because for those of us who stopped paying attention to him after 1985, looking at Mr Jones today, you'd swear he was at least 10 years younger than the facts tell us. It seems that, unlike for the rest of us, time moves more slowly for this star of 1980s chart hits like New SongWhat Is Love and Hide And Seek. Either that or the positive energy, feel-good message of those memorable songs has been lived by Jones in the intervening decades and, in turn, the universe has chosen to treat him with more consideration than it tends to with the rest of us. (Perhaps therein lies a lesson for us all!) 

Whether or not you ever took to his characteristically chirpy (some might say annoyingly so) demeanour and delivery, it's difficult to feel mean-spirited towards Jones (a follower of Nichiren Daishonin Japanese Buddhism) when he is sending out such a positive, if occasionally hippy, underlying vibe. For me, much of his charm comes from those few moments in his repertoire when those well-meaning messages are delivered with cold, 'unfeeling' technology. Equipment he manipulates into giving you the impression that synthesisers, electronic drums and other such gadgets actually do have a soul. 

He seems like a man happy with his lot. While some of us were oblivious to what he'd been up to since 1985, Jones has been beavering away, releasing some 11 studio albums to date. His most recent, Ordinary Heroes, released in 2009, was entirely acoustic – his first studio album not to feature any synths. However, this evening the repertoire was focused on the first two albums alone: Humans Lib (1984) and Dream Into Action (1985). Only (wisely) they were performed in reverse chronological order. Nor did Jones choose to be restricted by the album running orders, preferring instead to unfurl them in a sequence that meant all the tracks were performed, but in an order better suited to what was, to some extent, a night of the 'greatest hits and more'. And so it had been throughout this UK tour, of which tonight was the final crescendo. 

It also meant this was a rare opportunity to hear the more obscure album tracks live. For the hardcore HJ fans attending, who appeared to comprise the majority of the audience, treats like that will have been the icing on the cake that already was the rest of the set. For the minority (like my wife and I) attending out of their appreciation for either (or both) of the first two albums, it was just good, old fashioned, value for money. 

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

[Live photo]

As soon as he was under way, it was clear Jones can still hit (most of not quite all) the high notes that he wrote at a time when I imagine he had little inkling that he'd still be at it almost 30 years later. Like all the best maturing singers, all the distinctive, instantly recognisable vocal qualities and characteristics were still very much in evidence, but the occasionally shrill edge of youth had been burnished by the years into something equally as expressive but less grating and therefore more satisfying. He even managed to pull off wearing a bright red leather jacket and (in the second half) a more subdued monochrome look, but still with a leather jacket (black this time). 

All the Howard Jones moves of old were still very much in evidence. The familiar headset microphone enabling him to frequently vacate his position from behind a massive Roland Fantom G8 synth, to walk to the front of the stage, reach out and lean into his receptive audience. Like a mild case of performance OCD, he still touches the side of his mike when reaching for the high notes and he can't resist clapping along to his own tunes from time to time. 

It had never occurred to me before, but having now seen both live in recent years, there are a lot of qualities Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby share. Both are proper musicians. Dolby, admittedly, the more overt (and proud!) technology geek, but both clearly steeped in a deep appreciation and an understanding of music in all its global variety. Even to the most casual observer, Jones' rich tapestry of musical influences was readily apparent back in the day. Whether it was the pseudo pan-pipes on What Is Love? or the 'steel drums' in the chorus of Like To Get To Know You Well (which always had a Caribbean feel to it), those influences felt heightened live. 

There was no Jed Hoile tonight. Jed is the mime artist that regularly appeared alongside Howard in the early days improvising choreography. Howard did give him a name check though, saying that it is possible he could appear again. Having only ever purchased the first album (sorry Howard) the first half of the evening dedicated to Dream Into Action was always going to be a prelude to the main event for me. The very fact that Jones had chosen to sequence the albums in reverse order suggested I wasn't alone in my view. But that was just wise. It gave the deferent but enthusiastic crowd the chance to warm into both the set and the evening. Not that they required much encouragement. When reference was made to Jones' performance at the O2 Indigo in London in 2010 (filmed and subsequently released as a live DVD, that was the first time the two albums had been performed live in their entirety), and the audience asked if anyone had attended that gig, a good number responded positively, indicating that tonight was all about preaching to the converted and giving the fans precisely what they came for. 

From the twelve track second album Look Mama and No One Is To Blame were perhaps the most memorable. But, for me, it was the pay-off of the second half that was the real reason for attending and was well worth the wait. It began promisingly, with the Far Eastern influenced instrumental China Dance (a B-side to the single Hide And Seek) used by way of intro music. Accompanied by an hypnotic abstract light projection, this was unexpected but the perfect reminder that there is more to HoJo (as fans have been known to refer to their hero!) than textbook pop songs. Beyond the hit singles, I had forgotten just how many memorable melodies and hook lines that first album contains. Whilst songs like Equality and Hide and Seek were Jones at his most challenging and introspective. In these he tackles the bigger questions about humanity and (just about) manages to still keep an optimistic outlook. Equality tonight is particularly punchy; demonstrating that, when the situation calls for it (this was released as a single only in South Africa as something of a protest song against apartheid), he isn't adverse to resorting to something weightier, and pulling that off just as convincingly. 

It isn't just that tonight confirmed for me that Jones has a rare talent for composing an unforgettable pop song, but that he does what he does with such affection for and appreciation of those who have supported him throughout his career. By the time the evening came to an end, with an extended version of New Song (of course!) it seemed as if pretty much everyone in attendance felt the same experience. An evening in the company of Howard Jones is a celebration both of music and life; and we all need to take time out now and then to share in that. I'm pleased we did. 8/10

Rob Dyer