RICKIE LEE JONES AT SFJAZZ Sings in Great Voice But Poor Form in Davies Symphony Gig 5/27
It's not an unknown fact that Rickie Lee Jones has had her share of personal issues affect her music. From her early albums, which heralded such promise, a voice with such clarity and feeling though awash in chemical fueling that hadn't yet affected the overall quality of her voice, to an ex-patriate living in Paris and the disillusionment with her home country eating away at her, a return to this country with an eventual slide back down that proverbial --and familiar-- slippery slope where eventually drugs and drink thrashed not only her instrument but her reputation. Even in her early days, before the release of her self-titled Rickie Lee Jones (1979), running around L.A. and partying with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss (yes, there was a Chuck E.), there is a dichotomy of personality that is striking, puzzling, intriguing. Waits says of Jones: "I love her madly in my own way... but she scares me to death. She is much older than I am in terms of street wisdom. Sometimes she seems as ancient as dirt, and yet other times she's so like a little girl."
That split, this wise and ancient as dirt crone who peers ever-so deeply inside of you and then instantly become the waif of a little girl lost who wants to find her way back to you was just what many came to experience at the concert RICKIE LEE JONES AT SFJAZZ at Davies Symphony Hall Friday, May 27. The promise and premise of the evening was that Jones would sing her first two albums in track order, with many of the original musicians from either the studio or her tours. Some tunes hadn't been sung live in concert, so audiences were in for a treat. Pre-show buzz in the lobby and the theatre had many folks excited about the construct of the evening, hearing the songs in track order. Having heard my share of Jones' drug-addled sound, I had a healthy amount of curiosity as to whether she'd be in good voice. I wasn't alone.
The first track of her first album is "Chuck E.'s in Love" and Jones --dressed in attire you might roll out of bed in on your way to making coffee for an early morning lounge-about with the crossword puzzle-- had the audience in her hands with the familiar opening guitar strains, which she played along with her band. When she opened her mouth to sing, a remarkably strong, clear, clean sound reached out.
Nearly right out of the gate, however, she lost a few of her audience with the choice to back phrase most of the song. All of it, nearly, or so it seemed. A few audience members scratched their heads, trying to sing along, unsuccessfully. Back phrasing is a great tool used judiciously, but doing so with an entire song, no matter how well the tune is known, creates a disconnect with the audience: they're hearing the band play a certain set of notes and expecting the vocals to match, yet they don't. The vocals are a few beats behind and the brain sorta gridlocks trying to match up the vocal with the instrumental, yet the average brain can't untangle the two. Still, the track was delivered with vocal clarity and power, and Jones seemed off to a good start.
Until the second track.
Which, technically, was the third track. Apparently Jones didn't think to put together a set list and keep it on set to keep her on track. Or, if she did have it on set, it was not referenced. As the evening unfolded, Jones lack of some device to keep the tracks organized in a manner that would allow the concept to play out as planned became Jones' Achilles' Heel. Perhaps she was relying on memory; after all, she recorded the albums. But memory can always use a little help with a cheat-sheet or prompt. Eventually, it wasn't just being out of order that became the problem.
So the construct of the evening was shot by the second/third, third/second tracks, which Jones dismissed as saying she wanted to sing them that way. Singing "Night Train" with a longing, plaintive sound that made one think of the lost soul trying to find its way back, the audience was forgiving that the construct was deconstructed: her performance of this tune was powerful, not a break or back-phrase in sight.
When it came time for the next tune (technically the second, but, well, yeah... you get it), "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963," Jones, sitting at the piano, brought a haunting vocal tinged with a long-ago child-like wonder with such grace and skill, making this number a true winner for all. Right after, she slid into a sweet, delicious honky-tonk funk, a back-street N'awlins jazz groove bubblin' up as "Easy Money" put the "fun" in "funk" as audience and band members all felt the groove move them.
Then it seemed things began to unravel, ever so slightly at first. "The Last Chance Texaco" felt lost, slightly disconnected, singer, band and sound engineer each seemingly doing something else. The engineer recovered, but by song's end, it was unsatisfying. She redeemed briefly with "Denny's All-Star Joint" which the audience ate up faster than a Moons Over My Hammy special, leaping to their feet by the tasty tune's end. But that didn't have enough stick-to-the-ribs to keep the evening from devolving into a cracked Blue Plate Special.
At times lost as to where she was going next, even visibly stopping and wondering aloud if she was in the right place, Jones was clearly disorganized to the point of distraction. The conceit of the evening was so simple: sing the first two albums in track order. Very, very easy to follow. Yet there was no safety net, per se, no on-set set list, no one guiding or driving the show in its proper direction. By the end of the first album, I'd heard enough; it was a combination of befuddlement and saturation of this voice that is best taken in smaller, more varied doses. By the second darker, more dense album, Pirates (1981), it was clear that it was too much for all, including our vocalist.
Jones had a series of false starts, including some where she made the band start over completely after she was well into the song, and we were well into the evening. Imagine a very tired child trying their hardest to get it right, who realizes they haven't succeeded, and then can't hide their disappointment in their misguided efforts. So they begin taking it out wherever they can. Awkward. Particularly when, after awhile, the target became the band.
As though the audience wasn't there, Jones began to lay into the band members along the lines of -Follow me. Listen to me. Stop. Just stop what you're doing and follow me. Follow me-Technically, it wasn't the band's to bear the brunt of. Yet bare and bear it they did, several times, as the audience visibly recoiled, some even departing the auditorium in disgust or disdain.
This is precisely the behavior one never does in front of an audience. Particularly given that nearly all of the issues were, from the audience's perspective, Jones' and not the band's. It was awkward and embarrassing for all, and the goodwill she had at the beginning of the evening was completely lost, with trust going by the wayside as well. While she apologized once during this series of chidings, it wasn't enough to gain a decent portion of the audience back.
We left RICKIE LEE JONES AT SFJAZZ with mixed feelings - glad she was in such strong voice, not so happy at the complete lack of organization on her part nor the reprimanding of the musicians in front of us. One gentleman near us said sardonically, "well, that was certainly an interesting approach as a singer." My guest for the evening, a long-time fan of Jones, said he never needs to see her again. For a fan that has all of her records and has defended her even when she wasn't defensible, his words strongly registered what others seemed to feel as they left Davies Symphony Hall.
Kudos to SFJAZZ for the vision for presenting what could have been an excellent construct (namely the albums sung in track order). Headshake and finger-wag to Jones for not being organized and for castigating the band in front of us. The Spring Season continues at SFJAZZ, with many wonderful offerings. Visit www.SFJAZZ.org for upcoming performances at a variety of San Francisco venues. For info on Rickie Lee Jones, please go to www.RickieLeeJones.com.
Photo: Lee Cantelon, provided by SFJAZZ.org & Rickie Lee Jones.