Well, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.
I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.
Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.
That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.
When I spoke to Rachael Sage a couple of months ago, we spent quite a lot of the interview talking about this album. At the time I’d only heard two or three tracks that were being featured and we talked a lot about the songs that would appeal to the lyrical dancers that form a large part of her following. I realise now that we talked about less than half of the album. As good as the uptempo ‘colourful chamber pop’ (that’s Rachael’s definition) songs are, there are slower, more introspective songs that have more emotional depth while still featuring inventive textures and combinations of instruments centred around Rachael’s classical piano style.
The album opens with the slightly faster songs such as the whimsical “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and the weightier “Loreena”, before “Try, Try, Try” pulls you in with its naggingly insistent and maddeningly catchy fiddle hook. The powerful anti-bullying song “I Don’t Believe It” follows the album’s anthem “Home (Where I Am Now)”, which also appears towards the end of the album in a stripped-down, acoustic version. Beyond this, the album moves into darker, more personal songs taken at a slower pace and evoking the American singer-songwriters of the seventies, particularly Carole King, whose song “So Far Away” Rachael covers in almost a Carpenters style to close the album. And talking of the seventies, I thought I caught a scent of Randy Edelman’s pop piano style in there as well.
As the album progresses, the songs range through empowerment (“French Doors”), the end of a relationship (“Clear Today”) and obsession (I’ve Been Waiting”) before finding the tragic emotional depths of “7 Angels”, with its segment of Hebrew lyrics. The only way the album could possibly go from here is the redemption of “It Would be Enough” and a Carole King cover.
If sounds a bit sombre, it really isn’t; when the subject matter of the songs is dark and adult, the instrumental arrangements act as a counterbalance to the lyrics, featuring the usual rock instrumentation plus cello, trumpet, glockenspiel, oboe, English horn and accordion and Kelly Halloran’s melodic violin contributions, which shine out whether she’s playing catchy riffs, counterpoint or a duet with the lead vocal on “It Would be Enough”. “Choreographic” is a hugely varied selection of songs played superbly by a great bunch of musicians. It’s hard to believe most of it was written over a week in a hotel in Camden.