Rickie Lee Jones triumphs with first stop on tour

by Jordan Green

In the early 1980s, the album cover of Rickie Lee Jones’ 1979 debut could often be found propped up near the phonograph player of my best friend’s dad, as kind of a hipster totem in his rambling Kentucky estate.

The image of the singer made the first impression: glamorous in a kind of beatnik way, maroon beret constraining her long honeyed locks, a miniature cigar clenched in her lips with a pensive look that conveyed she was every bit as committed to her art as male contemporaries Dylan or Tom Waits. And the voice: More than one person has remarked on how distinct it was at the time and how emulated it has been ever since. Breathy, high, childlike with jazz phrasing and half-spoken/half-sung measures that evoke a seedy, Kerouac-like world of marginal survival. That was and is Rickie Lee Jones.

She appeared at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Oct. 17, the first night of her American tour to promote her new album, Balm In Gilead, which is set for release on Nov. 3.

The old hall was not quite sold out, but the audience was in an expectant mood. Not unlike Lucinda Williams, another songwriter who has developed a strong relationship with the Carolina Theatre audience, Jones is a headstrong independent who has experienced her share of personal turmoil and emerged as an artist with a deep sense of humanity.

She skipped her one hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” to the disappointment of some fans, but obliged with at least two songs from her famous debut, “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” and “The Last Chance Texaco.” It was the new material that really shined, however, and fortunately the audience in Greensboro was thrilled to come along for the ride, thus giving the artist a mandate to stretch into unexplored territory rather than revisit past glories.

There are singers that are great stylists, singers that harness deep emotion and singers that possess surpassing technical ability. Few of them deserve to be called artists. Rather than recite or interpret her songs, Jones invested herself totally in them. She displayed a willingness to experiment, and candidly acknowledged her missteps in her banter with the audience. By stripping herself of pretense, she gave her audience music’s true gift — restoration of the human spirit.

Dressed in a pinstriped suit purchased in Buenos Aires and accompanied by bassist Rob Wasserman, accordionist Joel Guzman and sometimes tour manager Alan Okuye on keyboards, Jones worked like a cantor and a shaman, meditating on the lyrics one moment and exploding with exultation the next. The poetry preceding each song set a mood and established a context.

Introducing the instrumental “Blue Ghazel,” she explained that a “ghazel” is “a kind of erotic poem to God, which I’m totally behind. That’s as good as it gets, I think.”

When she began to accompany the band with wordless vocals, the instrumentalists laid back. Cantankerous, she sang a buoyant declarative line like the woman in “Danny’s All-Star Joint” who wants to flaunt her sudden fortune hollering, “Come on, Cecil take a dollar!” To the band, she sang, “You know, when I sing with you boys, I want to sing with you boys, and not have you stop playing.”

Then the band poured themselves into the slow blues vamp, and Jones added her trills and gargles, coaxing the song to a sublime state despite its imperfections.

Perhaps the most revelatory moment of the concert was when Jones and the band played “The Ballad of Carlos, Norman and Smith,” also from the new album. Inspired by the black power salute of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City, the song meditates on the ravages of time against idealism, and reaches deep into despair to pluck out an abiding sense of hope.

Riding the surge of the organ and bass, then with the accordion substituting as a kind of soulful horn section, Jones reached the gospel crescendo and then thrust her fist in the air like those black Olympians.

“It’s hard to fathom: I’ve been going around the world playing these songs,” she told the appreciative audience. “I want you to know I am so grateful. Thank you so much. It went by just like that, didn’t it?”

Rickie Lee Jonesrefrained from playing her hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” during the firststop of her tour at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro, but still sentthe crowd swooning.

(photo by Jordan Green).