Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, Live at the Birchmere in Arlington, VA


On a frigid night in early December, one of the great singer/songwriters of American music played a show featuring the entire contents of her first 2 LP’s. For people of a certain age, recordings are meant to be heard this way; in their entirety. Actually, I had these records on cassette, and mostly listened to them on my Walkman while on tour. The second LP, “Pirates” holds a particular place in my personal pantheon. It was one of the few pop records of which I never grew tired. Every listen seemed to offer a new revelation.

Ms. Jones’ influence on pop culture should not be understated. Her look, her drawly singing style, her edgy lyrics and soulful grooves permeated hipster society in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. Street urchin chic, is how I classified it. Musically, she is the offspring of Laura Nyro and Bruce Springsteen, but she is nonetheless her own creation.

The show began with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love”, a clever turn on the grown up tom-boy who hangs with the guys but never gets one. Ms. Jones’ vocals still have the cutting high belt that is her signature, and in this song her unintelligible diction was at it’s most cryptic. The band was nice and groovy right from the start. Remarkable too was the restrained sound level; no earplugs were needed. The material on Rickie Lee’s first LP is much less challenging than “Pirates”, and the band seemed to have an easier time with it. Missing however, were the amazing high harmony parts mostly sung by Ms. Jones on the recordings. Probably not in the financial cards, but a couple of female backup singers would have really helped.

Some of the highlights from the first half of the show were “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, “Coolsville”, which featured the unmistakable cat wail of guitar and vocals, “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on which the band really glowed, and “Company”, a great jazz ballad. Ms. Jones preceded the performance of this song with a disclaimer, mostly about her inability to play along with it. Curiously , she seemed to struggle much more with the vocals on this complex piece. Throughout the show she spent a lot of energy on tempo changing, much to the band’s chagrin. It seemed like someone who has spent a lot of time touring solo, and expecting the band to follow her every whim. During the rubato bridge of “Weasel and The White Boys Cool”, you could tell the band was at sea trying to follow her quixotic phrasing.

As she embarked on “Pirates”, it seemed she was getting a little crabby. After a moving rendition of “We Belong Together”, her most Springsteen-ish work, Ms. Jones berated the audience for being unresponsive, which was far from the truth. “Lackadaisical” was the term used, and it worked, the crowd ratcheted up their response from thereon out. The weakest performance of the night was “Living it Up”, and with good reason. It is a very difficult piece, with multiple groove changes. The original recording is miraculous, I doubt if any live version could be its equal. Rickie Lee grew somewhat angered at the band at this point. I believe “cranky” was the word that sprung to mind. Before a stirring version of what she referred to as the saddest of all songs, "Skeletons", Ms. Jones admitted that she got a bit testy at the piano, blaming it on acid flashbacks and indiscretions of her youth. It seemed a bit like an apology. After "Skeletons", she adjusted the song order to make it more show-like; rather than end with downers like the jazzy but dark "Traces of the Western Slopes" and the quietly reflective "The Returns", Ms. Jones omitted the latter altogether, placing the crowd-pleasing "Woody and Dutch" at the end of the show, and smartly so. The song that launched a hundred Pepsi and McDonald's ads, worked it's magic with the audience, and their rousing response elicited what Ms. Jones said was their first encore of the tour, which turned out to be "Satellites" from the album Flying Cowboys.

The fear that the years, which have been so unkind to many of her generation, would have undone Rickie Lee Jones' sound, style and ability to evoke powerful emotions were quite unfounded. This 2-sider show was immensely moving and entertaining, and Ms. Jones proves why she is still a unique talent, and a treasure of American music.

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