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Rickie Lee Jones
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, 22/11/2013
Seldom does man’s best friend upstage a sold-out performer, but when it happened you just had to take it as a sign. "Pretty sure I've never seen that before," Rickie Lee Jones piped animatedly, moments after getting warmly greeted by the humans in the house, but it took half the set for her to explain why her aimless touring companion had pre-empted her entrance and also how isolating, yet wonderful it was being the owner of a pit bull; In an outsider-meet-outsider manner she revealed how people often crossed the street to avoid the pair during daily walks, but, although her tone was measured, the Chicago-born singer-songwriter inferred a powerful message:
Don't judge a book by its cover, one canine by a species, and, certainly, don't judge an artist like Jones by one album or one musical phase.
Jones has experimented with electronics, pop, jazz, folk, searing originals and rock covers and some critics suggest her lack of commercial consistency has cost her. Yet that appreciation for so many styles often means Jones takes her material quite seriously, regardless of its writer or genre. Early recordings of, say, Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’, illustrated her unarguably high vocal/emotional intelligence – Jones brings out the very best in a lyric and fares well with uncluttered accompaniment, be it a flailing acoustic piano or jabbing horn. She relied tonight on cello; mournful blues harp, sparse guitar and her own sporadic percussion.
Tonight her voice sounded as vibrant and varied as ever. She vortexed into a Nina Simone hiss, let loose a litany of barrio jargon, ticked off catchy names with her loose tongue and won us over with her natural stage presence and cavalier smile. She's a jazz queen harbouring a flower-child folky. Her guitar strums are all of the above: clangy, Latin, variegated and ingenious in a generous set where she traded acoustic guitar for piano.
Jones began with a beatnik number from her 1979 self-titled debut. She wrote 'Weasel and the White Boys Cool’ about long-time multi-instrumentalist friend, Sol Bernardi (blues harpist/guitarist), her touring partner, who shared the stage with cellist Ed Willett.
Jones and Bernardi go way back to when he played piano for a couple of comedians on the West Coast in the 1970’s - in walked the blonde singer and they rattled off tunes from ‘West Side Story’ – when I spoke later to the Jersey born, dark-eyed musician, who has resided in Paris for the last decade, he laughed and confirmed the spelling of his name, “It’s Bernardi, not Bernardo,” when we name dropped the famous film. Bernardi continued to be a strong influence, co-writing songs like 'Flying Cowboy', producing elegant instrumentals and piercing ballads like ‘Pretty Poison’.
But the first part of the set drew from Jones’ early career. 'Youngblood' was also from her debut but it was her hit 'Chuck E's In Love' that really made the trio sizzle. The dreamy 'Falling Up' brought us to 2007's ‘Sermon in Exposition Blvd’ and back to the bold exclamatory "It Must be Love" from 1984's ‘Magazine’. A train of more sombre thoughts followed when Jones whispered 'A Tree on Allenford', about a dead child, for whom flowers are left at his graveside. It’s no secret that Jones can make us shift mood without fanfare.
Jones' cover of 'Sympathy for the Devil' has garnered mixed reactions. Whilst the recording was certainly a stretch, her live version held a surge of suspense, as she lingered eerily on the outro. She flitted from album to album, flaunting the popular 'Pirates' as well as contagious 'Living It Up' and 'Beat Angels' from the under-rated ‘Traffic from Paradise’.
When Jones sang the Bernardi chestnut, 'Pretty Poison', a spell was cast. Her child-like voice was perfect for the sanguine, in-your-face lyric. In between, she sandwiched 'Coolsville', also from her debut; a song that then established Jones as a performer with a natural yet totally hip style. Bennett's cello added a rich flourish as she bopped, 'Only fools keep the wildcard too close to the heart."
On to 'Flying Cowboys', to which Bernardi and Bennett added considerable colour and 'The Horses', also from that album - both were tight and compelling. Jones shook the maracas for 'Tigers' and confirmed, "There are some rhythm-driven things we've been doing."
'Skeletons', a more sobering piece, found Jones deeply present and emotional. It was about an innocent man killed by cops, whose only sin was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital.
Jones zapped into wild percussionist on 'Lap Dog' from ‘The Evening of My Best Day’, and finally revealed that the mystery dog's name was Juliet. She wore her ramblin' heart on her sleeve for the brilliantly expressive 'Last Chance Texaco'. "Check under the hood/It isn't sounding too good," she sang, dejectedly, like a worn hitchhiker on a desolate stretch of highway. With a curious blend of innocence and street savvy, she gave us one of her most expressive performances. And, true to spirit, Jones, through heartfelt asides, revealed much of her personality. Seeming almost overwhelmed by the outpour of audience appreciation, she left space between songs to take stock of it all, taking chances, vocally, and, coyly, accepting our approval.
It was a jam-packed set list, which touched on many of her important milestones. Maybe next time she’ll sing, ‘The Moon is Made of Gold’ or ‘Bonfires’ - and rumour has it, she’s plotting another album of originals - but tonight Rickie Lee Jones really shone brightly and she reminded us that sheer borderless genius never really goes out of style.
The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.
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