Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Rickie Lee Jones casts a spell

  • Ricki Lee Jones David McClister photo

For the Gazette
Published: 2/28/2019 4:40:11 PM

In the hushed, dark, standing-room-only Iron Horse last Sunday night, Rickie Lee Jones had us under a spell, too strong to be broken, even with an overeager fan taking a photo in the show’s opening minutes, his blinding flash lighting up the back of the venue like fireworks.

Jones spent half of her 12-song show playing guitar, the other half seated at the venue’s Steinway grand piano, and all of the show emotionally invested in the moment. She played for 90 minutes with no set list, bringing the audience along on a journey from old favorites to hypnotic unmarked territory.

She was joined by Mike Dillon on drums, percussion, and vibraphone, and Cliff Hines on guitars; the two conjured plentiful colors while also staying tastefully out of the way.

A moody cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company” started off the night (Jones said it would be on her new album, “Kicks,” due out in June). Hines bent his electric guitar’s neck, wringing woozy tones out of it, like sonic heat haze, while Dillon added crisp bongos to Jones’ acoustic pulse.

“Weasel and the White Boys Cool” followed, from Jones’ 1979 self-titled debut, the record that won her a Grammy for Best New Artist. It’s one of her songs built on a slinky shuffle rhythm, and its opening chords sent waves of excited applause rippling around the room. Hines added fine vocal harmonies, and his dry, overdriven electric guitar was the perfect compliment to Jones’ own rich acoustic sound.

Another 1979 track (“Young Blood”) and a newer tune about “kind of a hokey heaven” (“Elvis Cadillac”) came next, and then, casually, Jones said, “Oh, I know…let’s do this song,” and then launched into the badass opening lick of her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s In Love.” Two women standing behind the soundboard were in instant heaven, ecstatically rocking back and forth to the beat.

Jones spoke warmly about her current home of New Orleans (“That’s where I met these two characters,” she said, affectionately gesturing to her bandmates). She suggested that everyone go and experience the city, calling it “all the things America could be,” and performed a short, funereal solo piano version of “St. James Infirmary,” a 1920s hit for Louis Armstrong that her dad taught her when she was young.

My heart did a little leap when she played the opening piano chords of “Living It Up” (the one song I was really hoping she’d do); its cinematic sweep hits something deep. The verses swing on wistful major-seventh chords, telling the tale of Eddie, Louie and Zero. But then the song’s complex arrangement does some beautiful, theatrical mood-morphing — one of many places in the show where Jones went into her keening falsetto, which is as powerful and emotionally potent as ever — and then the song detours into a one-time-only middle section that switches keys and waltzes majestically.

“Yeah, we’re living it up,” she and her bandmates sang with the sway, and though the lyrics are in the present tense, capturing a Hollywood-perfect moment of three close friends running around the city streets, strong and free, there’s a yearning in the music, an undertow from the future, of knowing it can’t last. When Jones left that section in the rearview mirror and eased back into the original key and rhythm, it was deeply affecting, feeling that moment fade away.

The show got more experimental near its end. Jones played some calm, unsettled chords at the piano and began with the end bit of her song “Magazine,” atmospheric, enigmatic. “Everything’s coming alive” she sang, and then slid into “Coolsville,” which felt like a minor key mirage. At times, her wordless falsetto vocals blended so well with Hines’ hazy electric guitar it was hard to tell from where the sounds were originating.

Leaving the piano behind, she told her bandmates, “Let’s do that song about infinity and I’ll just play the shaker.” It took some time for her accompanists to get the vibe to her liking — “I feel like I’m on a lot of really bad acid right now,” she said, before instructing Dillon to “just play the melody” on the vibraphone — but the unplanned arrangement gave the song a unique engine.

“Infinity” is from her 2015 album “The Other Side of Desire.” Jones made a trailer for the album (it’s on YouTube), in which she discusses the song, which came from a dream she had. In the video, she seems to catch herself on the edge of crying — the dream clearly meant a lot to her — and that initial emotion was still intact at the Iron Horse. It’s a spacey, unhurried lullaby with a circular melody as its center. Jones sang the chorus looking right at the audience: “This is where we've always been / This will always come again / This hasn't even happened yet / We’re here and in / Infinity.”

The show wasn’t over, but she got a standing ovation just the same.

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.con.

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