Saturday night was the second time I had seen Rickie Lee Jones. The first was November 14, '03 at the Barrymore in Madison when she was touring in support of The Evening of My Best Day. She has been long a favorite of mine with her inventive jazz-flavored arraignments, close-to-the-bone non-commercial lyrics, smart-ass yet sensitive personae, and that voice. That voice with a style that cannot be emulated, the most musical instrument in the mix. That night I discovered another Rickie Lee Jones, band leader. Then into middle age - she was 49 - past the years when she could dazzle an audience with just her youthful smile, she took the stage in blue jeans and what I remember as a flannel shirt. (Maybe it was just November in Wisconsin.) Her stage, her band, her music. She was in charge, demanding you listen and think about her lyrics, giving you no choice but to sync with the rhythms of 1970's and 80’s L.A. She soon had the audience in the palm of her hand; I could not look away. By the end of that night I think we were all breathing in unison. Last night, in front of a smaller, much different audience, fronting a smaller band less sure of itself, supporting the coming release of another album, Balm in Gilead, Rickie Lee Jones proved she is still in charge, that her music still will never be found in the easy-listening bin, and that voice is as strong and clear as ever.
The Carolina Theater was her first performance in 16 months, the first show of a tour what will carry her into the northeast, to Europe, back to Carnegie Hall, and home to California by the Christmas holidays. Her material was a mix of old and new, with a wonderful continuity that made it difficult to distinguish between the two. Her band was clearly still in the process of mastering the arrangements. When it all came together, she beamed. When it did not, her frustration was obvious. At the end of one song she commented with a bit of a forced smile that, since it was a song from her upcoming album, we had no idea how much they had just "fucked.....it......up."
Nonpareil bassist Rob Wasserman was to her right through it all - watching her hands like a hawk - providing a solid bottom end, rhythm, and grace notes. The remaining band members, two young keyboard players, were clearly in-process. Rickie Lee’s music is not simple. There are no flashy drums, electronica, or simple heavy bass lines to use as a crutch. When it works it is magical; when it does not - like much in life - it discomforts.
Rickie Lee’s recorded music is honest and heartfelt, sometimes painfully so. To get something out of it one must put something in. She is the same in person, no bullshit. She is not for everyone; she does not try to be. She reminded me again last night how much I appreciate that.