Once upon a time, Howard Jones rolled through the DC metro area and played some of his familiar hits.
It was Oct. 3, 2007, actually. He performed at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., and it was frankly not the greatest show I ever had seen. The famously camera-shy Englishman played acoustic piano, strumming keys to lyrics he had written some 20 years previously, only to stop frequently and poke fun at his own songwriting abilities and the occasional curious rhyme. He had become Howard Jones, The Lounge Act. All in all, it was a bit of a disheartening experience.
I attended that show with my favorite girl “Yasmin” back in the day. I’ve been chatting with Yassy again and she wanted to give Mr. Jones another chance because he was coming back to town to play his first two albums at The Howard Theatre last Thursday. HoJo, as we affectionately know him, had returned to synthpop and was going to play his songs as they were meant to be played.
Well, I always liked Howard Jones. And he performed my first concert, actually, at the University of Delaware on Friday, April 10, 1992. (A longtime music collector, it took me a while to begin attending concerts, you see.) And I’m kind of a sucker to happily go anywhere with Yassy, who can stage a mean debate on the prowess of individual musicians. So I went to see Howard Jones for a third time in my life, hoping it would be better than the last.
And. It. Was. Awesome.
I don’t mean to overstate it, but the show was incredibly uplifting. It was a very happy moment indeed to see Jones reclaim his past. He played things in a bit of a reverse order so as to make them more logical for a concert performance. In this case, he played his second album, the mellow and sometimes melancholy Dream Into Action first, leaving the most popular songs like the hit “No One Ever Is to Blame” for last. The first album, the even more electronic and upbeat Human’s Lib, came next after an intermission, again similarly rearranged so that well-known songs like “What Is Love?” and “New Song” closed out the set.
For his encore, he picked up a gosh-darn keytar and thundered away to “Everlasting Love” from his fourth album, Cross That Line. It was altogether impossible not to be very pleased.
In its entirety, the show was an electronic delight — thanks in great part to Jones’ band, Robbie Bronnimann on live sequencing/sampling (and these big damn electronic thunder sticks, the likes of which I never witnessed in concert) and Jonathan Atkinson on electronic drums. Bronnimann apparently deserves a lot of credit for getting Jones to pick up a mammoth Roland synthesizer again and recall all of the exact notes for how all of those classic songs were arranged. Unbeknownst to me, Jones and Company did all of this work, resurrecting the first two albums, and debuted them in London nearly two years back to some critical acclaim.
I found it a personally satisfying experience and 180 degrees away from his show at the Birchmere five years ago. As I grew up in early years of MTV, Jones for me could be best described as an adult contemporary performer who still had crazy New Wave hair and knew his way around a synthesizer. I remember that first album hitting the airwaves, but it was really the second album that stuck with you — with its mature themes of struggling to accept things outside of your power as in “No One Is to Blame” and of taking on responsibilities and facing things that make you afraid in “Things Can Only Get Better.”
Add to that the super-catchy advice of what the old man said to me in “Life in One Day,” and you have an extremely powerful nostalgia cocktail done right with huge blasting synthesizers. Those songs all sounded absolutely terrific.
At this point, Jones has a date in Chicago and four dates in California left in the United States before he returns to England and Australia to continue touring elsewhere. Go see him if like me you want to reclaim those childhood memories — or maybe if you need a new spiffy and synthy mantra for staying strong or suffering through love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that this was my first trip to The Howard, and I suspect I’ll be back. The Howard has been offering some very diverse programming since its own resurrection — and the spacious theater is a really cool place to see a show. The Howard is striving to be the Cadillac of concert-going experiences, complete with valets at every turn (sometimes counter to my punk-rock sense of how concert experiences should go). While all of that is somewhat understandable for those seeking a slightly more upscale concert experience, I was disappointed that some of the extra staff who apparently didn’t have enough to do Thursday night spent too much time chattering away quite loudly in the bar area, disrupting some of the concert experience.
Interestingly, much ado was made when the 2,000-person capacity Fillmore opened in Silver Spring, Md., last fall and how it might reshape the concert performance landscape in DC. The 9:30 Club has remained largely dominant on the local concert scene in part because the Fillmore quickly got pretty good at booking cover bands and castoffs. But with a 1,200 capacity roughly the equivalent of the 9:30, The Howard could offer some surprising competition in bookings only two blocks away if it continues to build on its schedule to date.