Royal Albert Hall
Jackson takes the stage thankfully shorn of the huge beard he sported on the cover of 2008’s “Time the conquerer” from which album comes the opener, “Just say yeah”. This is followed by “The long way around” from 2014’s “Standing in the breach”. He’s clearly starting by doing new and doing political. The first set is dotted with political messages and references – a Cuban protest song here, a reference to Brexit or comparison between England (he means the UK) and Trump’s America there. But the band is glorious and the JB voice is in fine shape, if adopting the “two semitones down” technique entirely justifiable for a singer / songwriter legend in his 60s. From the first number Greg Leitz gives JB deity alumnus David Lindley a run for his money on lap steel, pedal steel and exquisitely phrased lead guitar. Other guitar duties are handled by Val McCallum who does the fast tricky stuff which would have been played by Danny Korchmar back in the day, swapping guitars like a juggler, until I could spot a pending country number as he grabbed his Telecaster or a rocker as he reached for the Gibson Firebird. He nails the country pickin’, the wailing rock stuff, the atmospheric shimmering playing on “I’m alive”, and he’s the son of “The man from UNCLE” hero Ilya Kuryakin, so he’s basically pretty cool.
On bass we have the magnificently named Bob Glaub, present on so many of my albums (and probably yours – check his stupendous biog) though I’ve never seen him play before.
Maybe it’s the fraught times or my state of mind but I found the political stuff tremendously moving…”Before the deluge” took on a horrible prescience for me and as Greg Leitz wailed those lap steel lines over the coda I found my eyes suffering from the dust. A perfectly judged “The Pretender” wrapped up set one, with its tale of the day to day grind, relentlessly treading water, whilst dreaming of a better future, hanging in the air.
Set two was consciously “old”, and fun. I mean, JB is never going to be a barrel of laughs, and the opening “Your bright baby blues” made me miss Lowell George all over again, though Leitz recreated his slide guitar solo perfectly. But the tone was more jocular as JB swapped banter with the audience and pondered requests before playing something completely different. A hush settled over the hall as Jackson took the piano and played the opening chords to “Late for the sky”… thankfully true to the album – there are some songs you don’t mess about with live. This was swiftly followed by “Farther on” with the oft celebrated couplet “don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them”, written when he was 16. Clearly a heavy dude even then.
The Hall, by this time, was cooking. Each number was met with gales of enthusiasm, requests were called and sometimes met. “Just play what you want” someone shouted. “Trust me, I always play what I want” quipped our hero. One of my all time favourites, “Sky, blue and black” acquires the atmosphere of a hymn as we sit soaking up the sheer beauty of the melody and flawless playing from the band. Then he drops into “Rock me on the water” and we all sing along like a Baptist church gathering. Jackson introduced “For a dancer”, telling us it was written for a school friend who was always a little on the sidelines, but was a great dancer, and, inevitably, died early in a fire. I’d always imagined it was about a old girlfriend, but this surprise revelation did nothing to dismiss its power – what a fantastic song.
He ends on a storming “Running on empty” – introduced with a “this is what I figure we’re doing in my country, and maybe in yours, too” – the band on magnificent form again, before an encore of “Take it easy”. “You’re gonna sing along aren’t you” he says, and we do. Conflating the Eagles version – all the ooooooh oohs which they added are in place, and a pseudo banjo part from Val, before morphing back into the version on “For Everyman” as we segué into “Our lady of the well” and finally close.
The usual wrinklies who bought the classic 70s albums on vinyl when they came out, but an encouraging number of younger faces too.
It made me think..
I saw Jackson in his pomp in the late 70s and he was utterly brilliant, then again a couple of times since both solo and with a band – both times excellent (though, in my closeted mind, with no lap steel which is a crime TBH) so it was great to see him blow the roof off the Albert Hall with a storming band and a songbook few can rival. Running on empty? I don’t think so.