Joe Jackson
Carolina Theatre, Durham
June 5, 2017

Since most of Joe Jackson’s compatriots in the British new wave have long since hit the Stop button—either that or they tour in perpetual Rewind—it’s a notable act of chutzpah that he named his latest album and current tour Fast Forward. Then again, the Staffordshire singer’s career trajectory never followed a predictable path.

After first emerging among fellow angry young men of the late seventies like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, in subsequent years Jackson rifled through a series of genres from Beat Crazy’s reggae and ska to the jump blues and swing of Jumpin’ Jive. Artistically restless after coming into his own as a songwriter in the sophisticated urban Latin and jazz-inflected takes of Night and Day and Body and Soul, Jackson delved into film soundtracks and esoteric, instrumental releases including his Symphony No. 1, before returning to his first, best fate as a sometimes wry, sometimes sardonic pop songsmith in later releases.

That was the face he kept before a full house at Durham’s Carolina Theatre Monday night. Confidently driving home the power chords of his opener, “It’s Different for Girls,” on a bank of keyboards, he leaned into the microphone, flexing his jaw left and right beneath a nimbus of short white hair before vocally and physically arpeggiating skyward in a manner that recalled the work of XTC’s Andy Partridge.

A largely boomer audience recognized and applauded familiar numbers from Jackson’s catalog. Predictably enough, the house turned “Is She Really Going Out with Him” into a call-and-response sing-along, nimbly performed by a quartet including guitarist Teddy Kumpel, drummer Doug Yowell, and Jackson’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby. The group propelled numbers including “On Your Radio” and an eccentric cover of David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters.”

But minus the horn section and added percussion from the studio versions, a passionate take on “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)” and the groove-laden “Another World” both seemed under-orchestrated. In his fourth decade as a singer, Jackson’s voice now is more feathery on the top end; in “Real Men,” his heartfelt anthem on gender stereotypes and prejudice, Kumpel’s guitar now provides the highest notes of the vocal accompaniment in the chorus.

Perhaps surprisingly, most of Jackson’s most recent numbers were literate, nuanced and strong. Though the audience was understandably restive during the miscue, “Junkie Diva,” elsewhere the bemused insights of a now older observer of the passing scene were greeted more warmly.

Above the pensive tone clusters in the new song “Strange Land,” an aging narrator says, “I’ve studied the lines on the map and the lines on my face,” before asking, “Am I out of time or out of place?” In the song “Fast Forward,” Jackson decries that, while we can fashion a future with “a friendly Star Trek universe, ’cause everything’s allowed/The only place that’s seriously strange to be is here/And the only time that’s maddeningly mysterious is now.”