Howard Jones | Bridgewater Hall | May 30th

Thursday night at Bridgewater hall saw synth-pop star Howard Jones return to Manchester in support of his new album Transform and to mark the 35th anniversary of his double-platinum debut 1984 album Human Lib. Jones, no stranger to Manchester, studied piano at the Royal Northern College of music in the 70s and earned money on the side jockeying the night shift on Piccadilly Radio. Small beginnings but, for those who don’t already know, Jones would rise to considerable fame in the 80s with a string of successful albums and 15 top 40 hits between 1983 and 1992. Jones is a consummate pop artist whose synth-driven early strings of hits saw him dubbed ‘The Keyboard Wizard’ and he has, in many ways, come home to the sound that made him famous both on the new album Transform and at Thursday night’s show.

Old or new, no band is immune to the possibility that a crowd has come to listen to just a handful of tracks (played exactly as they were on the album), or come in with an almost palpable hostility toward new material. You can sympathise with people on both sides of the stage: the audience wants to hear the songs they love and the band or artist has more than likely grown tired of playing the same songs the same way for potentially decades. All of this seemed entirely absent from Jones’ set at Bridgewater Hall. He established the rhythm for the show early in the night, transitioning from the piano to his band-backed synthesizers in what he refused to call a ‘journey’ but hoped would be a ‘ride’. And it was.

You can take the man out of the 80s but not out of his 80s suit. Jones emerged with a shock of grey hair, a grey suit, and opened the show solo at his piano with the same song, ‘Hide and Seek’, that he did at Live Aid in 1985 (complete with a story about a helicopter ride with Queen). The man’s vocals don’t seem to have aged at all. I was settling in for a night of Jones at the piano but kept trying to look through the mesh screen hanging over the stage to decipher what three fat silver lines could be. Synths? I was hoping for synths. Jones got up from the piano, walked behind the screen, and it dropped to reveal synths among a neon light show. Honestly, it was impressive. My fellow reviewer turned to me and mouthed a silent what the f*!k.

Jones is a real performer and moved with obvious pleasure between the hits that made him famous and a selection of tracks from the new album—songs that, as many of reviewers of the album have noted, return to the synth-driven sound that he is rightly famous for. ‘The One to Love You’, one of three collaborations with trance pioneer BT, was one among several highlights from the new album. Not a crowd to be caught sitting for the night, the Manchester audience sang along, danced, and were clearly deeply appreciative of both the quality of the show and Jones’ disarmingly charming stage presence. It’s hard not to love a man playing a white Keytar. As an audience member I couldn’t really have asked for more: Jones’ new material (his 11th album) was great, he ended the night on his hit ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and I left feeling just like you want to after a great show—a little altered and more than a little transported.

Howard Jones’ Transform plays tonight in Gateshead before moving on to the North American leg of the tour.

by Chad Campbell

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