The Hotel Congress billed this year’s HOCO Fest as an “‘80s Dance Party.” But the Aug. 29 fete was really more of surprise party – hosted by the “master flabbergaster” himself, Howard Jones. And the biggest shock of the electrifying evening – at least for the 20 and 30-somethings in the crowd – was that it’s possible to play outstanding electronic dance music and actually sing at the same time.
The godfather of modern electronica took care of that with his first scintillating number, opening the show with a ripping “Pearl In The Shell.” And while he was at it, the Synth Lord provided a resounding musical answer to an all too common question posed by those same inexperienced millennials – as well as The Hotel Congress in the days leading up to the show – namely, “not sure who Howard Jones is?”
Jones exceptional show bordered on the dreamlike – primarily due to the remarkably catchy melodies. But it was difficult to dismiss the surreality of the music legend that once played in front of two billion fans at 1985’s Live Aid concert – playing in front of two hundred in Southern Arizona.
HoJo’s relative anonymity with too many music fans is startling given his platinum-selling status as one of the defining figures of synthpop. For Pete’s sake, the man shared the stage with a beetle – a palo verde beetle that is.
One of the enormous black-shelled creatures decided to “audition” for Jones’ band just as the ironically-timed first notes of “Like To Get To Know You Well” were wafting in the evening air. Fortunately for Jones, Robbie Bronniman (live sequencing/sampling/effects) and Jonathan Atkinson (electronic drums) were more than enough to dissuade the overeager six-legged resident.
It wasn’t the last time that the Fab Four reared their mop-haired heads. Near the end of a delightfully acoustic “Everlasting Love,” Jones gave a shout out to the Liverpudlians – and Tucson, Arizona – with a “Get Back” interlude. And uh, just for the record, Jones did tour with Ringo Starr as part of his All-Starr Band in 2001.
The music icon was the original one-man electronic band in the ‘80s, initially playing his complex melodies on multiple synthesizers while alone on stage. But the addition of Bronniman and Atkinson allowed Jones the opportunity to mingle with the fans in front of the stage – and at least, ahem, get to know them better.
Having the backing twosome along for the ride also gave Jones the chance to explore uncharted musical territory with remarkable synth solos on “What Is Love?” and “Things Can Only Get Better,” giving two of Jones’ biggest hits a familiar yet refreshed feel.
Jones also got by with a little help from his friends off stage. As he playfully admonished the crowd, “The old man said to me / Said don't always take life so seriously,” a front-row fan offered the somewhat overheated Englishman another fan – of the hand-held variety – before he launched into a cheerful “Life In One Day” backed by a 250 member “coyote choir.” It will be weeks before I can get the howling out of my head – “Ooh ooh ohhhhhhh.”
The resident chorale weren’t the only ones at the show singing for all they were worth. The 58-year-old Jones made good use of his 28-year-old pipes on a flawless “No One Is To Blame.” And he opened “New Song” with a new gospel-tinged intro, prowling the stage while playing the musical evangelist preaching, “Don't be fooled by what you see / Don't be fooled by what you hear.”
After an enthralling evening of listening to the pop legend’s complete catalog of “precious metal,” it’s certain that the fans at HOCO Fest’s opening night won’t get fooled again. And near the end of the show I swear I heard them chanting, “Oh, that Howard Jones.”