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Keyboard wiz Howard Jones set for 'songs and stories' in San Antonio

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Keyboard wizard Howard Jones brings his songs and stories to the Tobin Center in San Antonio on Thursday. Courtesy: David Conn

Pioneer is definitely not a big enough word to quantify Howard Jones' impact on the musical tapestry of the past 30-plus years. With his colossal bank of keyboards that gave him an encyclopedia of sounds that would drape over his audience and open our ears to a new wave of musical ideas, Howard made a new era in musical technology more accessible to the masses.

Howard helped define the synth-pop sound that dominated the airwaves back in the 1980s, with infectious hits like "What is Love," "Things Can Only Get Better," and "No One is to Blame" that garner immense airplay even in the new millennium.

But its his passion for his craft and his love of performing that keeps the 62-year-old synth-pop wizard out on the road after three decades.

"I've always said that I feel very fortunate to have been able to perform for so long," he said. "America embraced me pretty early on and it's always a treat to see the fans enjoy what you're doing. I've got a really unique relationship with my fans."

After going out with his full band last year, Howard has decided to strip down, musically speaking, with just himself and a piano on his new tour - Howard Jones – An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories.

"It is something I do regularly in my touring life," Jones said during a recent phone interview. "I love the intimate atmosphere that you get with the smaller venues. I get a chance to explain myself a bit, while playing most of the bits. What I do like is that I get to go much deeper into my catalog and play songs that I haven't performed as much."

Tobin Special Sessions welcomes Howard Jones - An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories Tour to San Antonio for a special performance at the Tobin Center's Carlos Alvarez Theater on Thursday.

And Howard said that stripped down approach actually frees him up to experiment more in that improvisational setting.

"Part of the freedom of it just being me with my piano is that I can do so much with the songs," he said. "I can change the tempo or give them a bit of a twist. I can play them in any sort of style I want depending on my mood. I get to tap into my improvisational side. I'm just pushing myself as an artist."


THROW OFF YOUR MENTAL CHAINS

Howard has always pushed the boundaries of what was possible.

He broke on the scene with his one-man band in 1984 with his album "Human's Lib" that included his first hits "New Song," and "What is Love." On tour, it was just Howard and his keyboards. He said that minimalist approach was groundbreaking in a way that nobody had done it before in a way or were totally dependent on technology.

"I'm really proud of those early one-man show tours," he said. "The technology was advancing so much that allowed for me to go down and buy stuff at a local music store and put on a one-man show. It allowed me to be really creative. The problem was being that dependent on technology is that things can go wrong and did go wrong. You just have to deal with it as a musician. It was pioneering for its time and something I'm really proud of."

America has always held a special place with Howard, as he immediately felt a connection with the American audience.

"I remember my first proper tour of the States was with Joe Jackson and the Eurythmics, (back in 1984)," he said. "I just remember the really big crowds and they really responded to me and my songs. I was still a one-man band back then so they immediately took me in. Luckily, it has continued."

On the momentum of the success of his first album, Howard wrote the songs for his follow-up album "Dream Into Action" while on the road. You never know when or where inspiration can hit you, as Howard found out, as he found inspiration for his biggest hit in the States, "No One is to Blame," while crossing a street in San Francisco.

“I was in San Francisco,” he said during an interview with songfacts.com, “and I was doing a promotion with the local record company guy, and we were crossing the street to go to the radio station, and he said to me, ‘Howard, what do you think of all the amazing women here in San Francisco?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they’re great, they’re fantastic.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can look at the menu, but you don’t have to eat’…”

“And so that was it,” Jones continues, “A good spark for a huge idea coming for a song.” The lesson for artists: always be alert and ready to seize upon that “spark” of inspiration."

HUMAN SIDE OF KEYBOARDS

With his arsenal of keyboards that included a Roland Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX-7, Pro One, Moog Prodigy and more, Howard was able to create sounds that had never before been possible, but in the beginning, it came with a price, especially when critics saw him leave his keyboards and interact with the audience.

"Some people didn't think we were actually playing (on stage)," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They thought we just programmed the music and that was it, which was completely unfair. Actually, I was programming synthesizer sequences as I played , so that when I left the keyboard setup, the only things running were the arpeggiating patterns on one keyboard, and a five- or six-note sequenced loop. I was generating the music at that moment, and it was right on the edge. But no one had done that one-man kind of show before, so how could people know what I was doing?"

No matter what critics said, Howard kept churning out hit after hit and the audiences kept filling arenas to hear this synth wizard cast his mystical musical spell. Keyboards were embedded in the fabric of the musical landscape during the mid 1980s with artists like the Ultravox, Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Eurythmics and Depeche Mode that dominated the charts.

But Howard was keen to put the spotlight on the "human side" of the synthesizer movement and an invite from the Grammy Awards back in 1985 gave him and other synth masters a chance to do just that.

"The Grammy's wanted to do a kind of celebration of keyboard players and the new technology so they asked myself, Tom (Thomas) Dolby as they new players on the scene along with the legends in Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.

"We all went down to Stevie's studio and worked up a medley of a song from each of us. I remember thinking that 'I'm hanging our with Stevie Wonder' and talking about his music and picking his brain. I mean Stevie and I were jamming together for like 20 minutes, trading licks back and forth on the keyboard. I still can't believe that it happened. Those memories are priceless."

And Howard said that performance really added credibility to electronic music.

"What we really were after from that performance was for people to not be afraid of technology," he said. "It was really revolutionary for its time. I mean people really didn't understand how electronic music was done, but now they could see the work it took and that we were really musicians. I really felt honored to be on that stage."

LIVE AID

With all that technology available, Howard went with a stripped down approach when it came to playing in front of the biggest audience at Live Aid. A performance he said "still sends a chill down his spine."

"I have so many wonderful memories of Live Aid," he said. "I remember watching Queen give one the best performances ever. I loved seeing Freddie (Mercury) back in his element.

"As for my own experiences, when I heard about Live Aid, I knew I had to be a part of it, but I was on the (Dream Into Action) tour in America at the time. I knew I wanted to perform in England where I'm from, so we had to cancel some shows and I flew back to the UK with Afrodiziak, who were my backing vocalists. I sat the piano and I remember the audience singing the "Hide & Seek" chorus. That was a transendental experience and something I'll always remember."

There was one performance during Live Aid that didn't make it into his set due to the show over running, but it had a magical audience.

"What many people don't know is that I was suppose to perform two songs at Live Aid," he said. "My backing vocalists (Afrodiziak) were rehearsing in this common area backstage. Pete Townshend and David Bowie both came out to listen. It was more quality than quantity with our audience. It was a great day."

ENGAGE THE AUDIENCE

Fast forward to 2018, Howard has embraced the new recording and technology advancements and is still breaking new ground, especially with his recent groundbreaking "Engage" album and tour that saw the syth maestro orchestrate a multimedia live show with multiple screens aand lots of technology that interacts with the audience.

When asked if he was to make his debut album in 2018, Howard said there wouldn't be much he would change.

"I wouldn't change the songs at all. Those songs were a reflection of my time and experiences," he said. I suppose if I was to make my first album today, it wouldn't be done in a top-end, expensive studio like we did back in the day. I could have just recorded it at home. It was a very different time (back in the 80s.) The budgets are not as huge for an album as they were back then. But I like the freedom that working at your home studio affords you. I can now send a track to my drummer (over the net) and give him a good template that I want and he can spend the day in his own studio working it up. We can talk during the process live over the computer. That side of (the recording process) is absolutely brilliant."

With his solo tour when it's just him and his piano, Howard said he enjoys the opportunity to get closer to his audience "engage" them, while changing things up when it comes to his hit catalog.

"I'm never afraid to change things up with my classic songs," he said. "When you strip away the production and the technology, if there is a good song underneath, it will shine through."

Howard Jones - An Intimate Evening of Songs and Stories Tour begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Tobin Center's Carlos Alvarez Theater on Thursday.

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