Eighties British techno-pop star Howard Jones’ drops by Chicagoland – acoustic style

(March 9, 2020).  When a former big-haired, synth-pop star from the 1980s can take his biggest hits and beautifully transform them four decades later into magnificent acoustic jam sessions, you know he’s armed with boatloads of talent.

When he does so amidst worldwide fears of a new and deadly flu-like virus that has roiled markets and has authorities advising against some international travel and attendance at large gatherings, that’s chutzpah.   

Both were on display by highly skilled songwriter and keyboardist Howard Jones, the former fabulously coiffed British lad who wowed America with his unique brand of melodic pop in the big ‘80s and who still has the vocal chops to carry those tunes some 30-35 years later. 

Except in 2020, at 65 years old, he’s doing it sans the drum machines, electronic synthesizer keyboards and other elements that made his futuristic new wave sound such a big part of the pop landscape back in his heyday.

Nick Beggs, Howard Jones and Robin Boult

Instead, Jones is accompanied these days by two longtime companions: rhythm guitarist Robin Boult and bassist Nick Beggs, the latter formerly of the ‘80s pop group Kajagoogoo.  The three musicians brought their “Acoustic Trio Tour” to St. Charles, IL and the historic Arcada Theatre on Friday, March 6, and played before a small but very appreciative crowd of about 800 people. 

The “medium-sized” star – as Jones jokingly referred to himself during one of his many between-song monologues – performed a 15-song set that included most of his biggest ‘80s hits plus newer tracks from the ensuing decades, including two from his latest album: 2019’s Transform.  As Jones’ hit-making days are long behind him, those two newer tunes – “The One to Love You” and “Hero in Your Eyes” – provided fans who hadn’t been following him recently with a glimpse of what the talented artist has been up to these days, musically speaking.

But it was the old hits that people really came for, and Jones and Co. didn’t disappoint.

The show kicked off with the jubilant top-20 hit from 1986: “You Know I Love You…Don’t You?” and later included other big ones like “What is Love?” and “No One is to Blame” (both songs well suited for their acoustic treatments on this night).  For “No One,” Jones told the story of how the song was famously brought to life a year after its original recording by Phil Collins’ signature rearrangement (in 1986 it became Jones’ highest peaking single in America at No. 4).

Jones dug deep into his catalogue for other songs like “Assault and Battery” and “Specialty” – both from his biggest album in America – Dream Into Action; plus he played two stellar tracks from his debut album, Human’s Lib: the complexly chorded “Don’t Always Look at the Rain” and the ever pleasing “Hide and Seek.”

But the show’s highlights may very well have been what he did with other people’s tunes.

Howard Jones performs “Too Shy” with Kajagoogoo’s Nick Beggs at the Arcada Theatre near Chicago.

Beginning with a cover of fellow ‘80s new wave act Kajagoogoo’s top-five hit “Too Shy,” Jones, Boult and Beggs turned in an outstanding jazz-fusion rendition that eschewed the lyrics (except for the singalong chorus) and highlighted Beggs’ amazing bass playing (which he’d been alternating between a traditional bass guitar and his instrument of choice, the Chapman stick).  The song was a fitting tribute to Beggs, who co-wrote it with his former bandmates in Kajagoogoo and whose bass riffs, which he replicated perfectly, had set “Too Shy” apart from other new wave hits of the day.

Then, oddly enough, came two Beatles covers: “Come Together,” the John Lennon-penned tune that Jones said had special meaning lyrically, and “Oh! Darling,” which Jones said he chose in order to give songwriter Paul McCartney equal representation in his set.

Jones also shed some light on another legendary British act – Queen – and one of the falsities of the 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.  In the motion picture, the entire band was depicted arriving at 1985’s Live Aid concert in a limousine.  Jones stated during a monologue that he knew this transportation detail to be false because he was a passenger in the same helicopter that had carried Queen’s members (except the late Freddie Mercury) to the legendary benefit concert.  

It was stories like that one and many others told between songs that gave Jones’ show a nice personal touch.  

As far as HoJo’s own songs went, while everyone was likely anticipating a big finish during the encore with set-closer “Things Can Only Get Better,” his best performance of the night was arguably that song’s followup hit, the equally uplifting “Life In One Day,” for which Jones worked his magic and turned in an energetic, two-part, marathon version.

Howard Jones sings “Life in One Day” on 3/6/20 at the Arcada Theatre near Chicago

Part 1 featured slightly altered lyrics and melody followed by a seamless reprisal of the song with original lyrics and melody for Part 2.  Jones capped the performance with an interactive call-and-response vamp with the audience that even showed some of the British singer’s soulful side.  

That performance could have easily been the night’s closer instead of the predictably positioned “Things Can Only Get Better,” which – although it is this blogger’s favorite of HoJo’s tunes and obviously one of his biggest hits – lost some of its charm when it was done acoustically.

No matter though.  A show capped by a song titled “Things Can Only Get Better” is probably fitting for the times we’re in, specifically a presidential election year in which the incumbent and two main challengers are all stodgy old men in their seventies and with global fears and panic sparked by a deadly new virus that no one yet understands, one which might have even caused a few no-shows at Jones’ show.  

Kudos to the British star for giving us something to take our minds off the headlines of the day, even if for only 90 minutes.

Howard Jones at the Arcada Theatre on March 6, 2020.

Howard Jones’ Setlist at the Arcada Theatre on Friday, March 6, 2020:

  1. You Know I Love You…Don’t You?
  2. Assault and Battery
  3. Don’t Always Look at the Rain
  4. What is Love?
  5. Specialty
  6. The One to Love You
  7. Too Shy
  8. No One Is to Blame
  9. Exodus/Come Together (Beatles cover)
  10. Oh! Darling (Beatles cover)
  11. Hide and Seek
  12. Hero in Your Eyes
  13. Life in One Day
  14. Everlasting Love
  15. Things Can Only Get Better (Encore)

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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