‘Jesso’s voice almost resembles a howl, full of searching questions, with no easy answers‘ – Siobhán Kane reviews Tobias Jesso Jr‘s performance at The Unitarian Church on Sunday night
With his mop of brown curls, and tall stature, Tobias Jesso Jr resembles a 1970’s track star. Yet as he sits at the piano in Dublin’s Unitarian Church, to a sold-out audience, and begins to play, it becomes clear that it’s a different kind of athleticism he is built for – his strength and energy going into surveying the complex terrain of the heart.
It’s strange to think that he only really took to the piano a couple of years ago, as guitar was always his instrument, but in the last number of years, Jesso has reimagined so many things, and a series of unfortunate events have proven somewhat transformative. Several years ago, he moved to Los Angeles (he is originally from Vancouver) hoping to “make it” as a musician, but he struggled, and was then involved in a hit-and-run, which left him with a severely injured hand, and a stolen bicycle-he watched it being ridden off into the middle distance,dazed from the accident. Around this time, he also found out that his mother was severely ill (she has since recovered), so he moved back to Canada, and started exploring his sister’s piano, refusing all history, and beginning again.
Much of what he created ended up on his debut record Goon (released earlier this year on True Panther), which forms the bulk of the performance this evening. Considering that the content of the record is so full of yearning and heartbreak, he is an affable and completely open performer, his voice so natural and expressive, and his melodies so finely tuned.
How Could You Babe? is essentially a ballad about an ex-love moving on to somebody else, and Jesso’s voice almost resembles a howl, full of searching questions, with no easy answers, each verse slowly building to a glorious release, Hollywood reaches back to his Los Angeles experience, The Wait is a lovely pop-infused song, which sees Jesso moving over to guitar. Tell the Truth is a brilliant composition, which Jesso has a lot of fun with, drawing it out for longer than the album version, so he can “look at everyone in the eye”, which he charmingly attempts to do. True Love, a perfect companion to his song Just a Dream, sounds like it should have been on the record, but was a demo that he had created around the same time, and it fills the space with its fuzzy, vague beauty.
Without You is a perfect song, so sensual, haunted by passion and the loss of that passion, and live it just soars, as he sings, “Why can’t you just love me?/Should I move on or should I wait?/How’d you get so high above me?/I reach higher every day/ But nothing changes/ No, it all just stays the same”, it is so disarming in its raw honesty. My friend Peter, said that almost every song (pleasingly) “sounds like an alternative soundtrack to Hill Street Blues” and I knew exactly what he meant, there is something so familiarly melancholy, Mike Post-influenced, though situated in more of a late ’60’s/’70’s musical haze, bringing to mind antecedents like Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson – who themselves were so closely enmeshed.
He provides two covers, Carmichael and Gorrell’s Georgia on my Mind and Big Star’s Thirteen – so beautifully rendered, again, the word transformative comes to mind. And I couldn’t help but think how Jesso’s own compositions almost sound like covers of lost classics, and in time to come, how others will undoubtedly cover his work, because they feel the same way.
He jokes about being in a church on a Sunday, and how part of a church’s remit is to not turn anyone away, and what do people do who don’t have tickets to a sold out show? People were sending him messages earlier about that very thing, and his advice? “Just turn up, they can’t turn you away”, which partly reflects his sense of life, kind of wide-eyed and yet wry; his songs so understated, and spare, but adding up to something quite spectacular and very special. He returns in December, with a band, an early Christmas present.