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Jack L: The 27 Club at the National Concert Hall (Review)

Jack L remains one of the best live actions touring in Ireland today. The performer has a rare energy and a natural theatricality that lend him a magnetic on-stage presence. It’s always a blast to hear the artist put his own slant on songs by other artists. (Despite having a rather wonderful portfolio of his own songs to draw on, Jack L is also the second-best performer of Bertolt Brecht that I have ever heard. Only David Bowie offers a better version of The Alabama Song, which was on offer tonight.) The artist is wonderful to watch in almost any environment, but always seems especially exuberant when returning to the National Concert Hall.

The theme of the show – the infamous “27 Club” – feels like quite a morbid approach to musical performance. Basing the evening’s playlist around the numerous incredibly talented musicians who passed away at the age of twenty-seven. Amy Winehouse is perhaps the most notable recent example, but the club includes luminaries like Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison amongst others. This gave Jack L a rather varied and impressive back catalogue to draw from for the stage show.

In a way, the highlight of The 27 Club is seeing just how delightfully versatile Jack L is as a performer. Opening the second-half of the concert with a purely vocal version of Old Man River in tribute to Robert Leroy Johnson, the singer transitioned through musical genres with a practised ease. Able to shift effortlessly from Joplin’s Mercedes Benz to a powerfully low-key version of Nirvana’s Smeels Like Teen Spirit to a more hardcore interpretation of the Stones’ Paint it Black, the whole night was a testament to just how varied Jack L could be. Moving from soul to rock to pop and hitting everything in between, Jack L never felts uncomfortable or out of place.

He has a wonderful charm on stage – there’s a sense that he could direct his audience to do just about anything when he has them in his thrall. Punctuating songs with humorous anecdotes or folk legends about how Robert Johnson might have sold his soul to the devil, the singer-songwriter had a tremendous knack for making the evening seem much more casual than it must have been. Featuring a spectacular background lighting show (occasionally manipulated by the singer himself to great effect) and a wonderful musical accompaniment, the evening looked and sounded pretty spectacular, and it’s hard to imagine all the preparation that must have gone into it.

There were a few minor problems. During the heavier songs (Paint it Black or his cover of Lithium), Jack L’s beautifully and poignantly powerful voice threatened to get lost amid the bass emanating from the speaker system. Given the sheer magnificent force of Jack L’s vocal work, that’s really saying something. The evening worked at its best when the approach was relatively minimalist, with the performer cranking out a surprisingly affecting version of Smells Like Teen Spirit in such a way that the last verse seemed to make perfect sense – despite the jumble of nouns projected helpfully on to the screen behind him. Replacing the nihilistic rage of the original version with a more calculated mournful approach is a rather ingenious take on a modern classic.

The projector and the graphics looked to encounter some minor technical errors during the second-half of the show. While that was a bit of a shame given the time and effort that clearly went into producing the videos to accompany the live performance (including clips of the deceased artists in action, lyrics, quotes and other nice touches), the audience was very clearly focused on the front man on the stage. Despite his rather wonderful flair for pageantry in constructing his stage shows, Jack L himself has enough stage presence to firmly anchor the performance. He’s a powerful and compelling presence – one it’s hard to take your eyes off even when there’s an interesting quote from Bob Dylan about Jimi Hendrix’s All Across the Watchtower appearing on the gigantic screen behind him.

Jack L remains one of the most fascinating live performers touring today, and his shows are an absolute joy to behold, carefully crafted with a very deep and abiding affection for music as an artform. It’s hard to think of another working artist who could so effortlessly blend Joplin and Nirvana, the Rolling Stones and Amy Winehouse, the Drifters and Echo and the Bunnymen. Jack L does this, and he does it in an astonishingly convincing way. Barring one or two minor technical issues, it was one heck of an evening.

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