Rickie Lee Jones delighted the Cedar Cultural Center crowd last night. I don’t know if the place was sold out. For all practical purposes the joint was SRO. Despite that, the best word to describe shows in that iconic West Bank venue is intimate. The Cedar is the perfect place for Jones and her band.
I’m not sure when I first saw Rickie Lee perform. I’m guessing it was more than 35 years ago. I’ve caught her in a number of incarnations over the years. For me, her catalog of music is a bit mercurial. The debut Rickie Lee Jones and follow up Pirates are groundbreaking. Some is a bit out of my reach. I’ll imagine she’s losing interest or I’m moving beyond. Then she’ll drop a record that will shake me to my core. For instance, I’d not listened to her for a handful of years prior to Sermon On Exposition Blvd. Completely out of the blue original and still one of my personal favorites. She reminds me of The Waterboys’ Mike Scott in that way. Mercurial and far ranging, for sure. But you need to stick around because when she nails one, it’s as good as it gets.
In many ways, Jones has always been a bit of an enigma to me. I always felt like I understood the music. I could never wrap my mind around the woman behind the singer. Nothing wrong with that. It’s rare when a fan actually understands who a performer is. The stage is built for characters and most artists stay safe by continuing to be that character when they step into the spotlight. Yet for those performers we admire we are curious and we often project our own incarnations.
I’ve always viewed the RLJ character a bit differently because of how she started. Specifically, because most of us saw her at the same time we first heard her. That makes a difference. She exploded onto the scene in 1979 prior to the release of her debut, self titled album. She and her friends created a film comprised of Coolsville, Young Blood and Chuck E’s In Love. It essentially went viral. Amazing in that this was pre-MTV. One might say she was the original video star. For those of us old enough to remember, that film played in a loop on TV monitors in record shops across the land.
That short piece of film worked, not only because the songs were brilliant. But because RLJ had an instant image; a unique voice and look. The streetwise waif in bright beret. A progenitor of rap and music from the streets. She was one of the first to completely blur any distinctions between white music and black music. Video was about to redefine the way we absorbed our music. Rickie Lee Jones was the fresh young face of a new way of doing things.
Those first three albums were all critically acclaimed. The rise to stardom meteoric. Grammy’s, the cover of Time, two stints on the cover of Rolling Stone. She was this vulnerable mixture of Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong and The Beatles. The follow up Pirates was one of the greatest sophomore releases in history. It is still regarded as one of the great pop albums in history. With each album the image of the streetwise waif continued to evolve. While I always found her music instantly recognizable, the same could never be said for the artist behind the songs. I was always curious about what she was really like.
Like so many anointed with stardom at a tender age, it all became a bit too much. At a time when most artists are just breaking out, RLJ decided to walk away. She was fed up. Five years passed before she decided to return. After spending nearly two hours with her last night, it’s hard to fathom how she managed to do that. From the earliest days, she has always seemed to me to be an artist who is simply imbued with music. She’s that woman singing behind the wheel of her car or scatting as she cruises the produce aisle. I’m sure she has a “normal” life outside of music. But I can’t wrap my head around how somebody like her could be happy without singing songs.
Luckily for us she came back. And she came back on her own terms. If anybody ever wanted proof of doing it her way, look no further than the Lo-fi Sermon On Exposition Blvd. Or the most recent Kicks. These are works that are all about the project, the people and the act of creation. The business side of things comes after the art.
And that, more than anything, was my strongest impression of the woman last night. She seems really happy; comfortable in her own skin. There was genuine joy simply making music and singing songs with her band. The fact that hundreds of us were there to applaud was not a necessary part of that equation. I think she sings, not because she wants to or it’s how she earns her living. She sings because that’s who she is. She writes songs when she’s happy (invariably blues shuffles according to her). She writes songs to deal with life’s pain. For the first time last night, I no longer saw the image; the waif, the street urchin, the Duchess of Coolsville. I saw Rickie Lee Jones as a middle aged woman, without pretense, who finds delight in sharing her songs with anybody who wants to listen.
The whole thing feels organic. Her performance comes across so sincere. Art at its most unvarnished, unpretentious and authentic. I really loved that. Last night seemed less like a trip to a concert than an invitation to her home. Once we were all settled in, she and her talented friends sat down to create some magic. No set list. No formality. There is a fine, but very distinct line, between music which is being created and music which is being repeated. I’ll take the spontaneous creation every time.
Her crackerjack band is comprised of multi instrumentalists. They’re along for the ride every bit as much as those of us in the audience. Rickie Lee would start a song, they’d nod, pick up the correct instrument and join in. She’d warn them to pay attention because she wasn’t sure which direction she’d take a song. As she teed up Elton John’s My Father’s Gun, one of them walked over to the piano and parked. Jones looked at him, eyebrows arched, and asked: “Is that what you want to play for this one?”
Were there mistakes? Depends on how you define a mistake. Did she change keys? Occasionally get some help from the audience to remember some obscure lyric or who wrote a particular song she decided to tackle? Sure. But that was much of the appeal. We were all in this together. There is that early vulnerability which arose from that image of a young girl back in 1979, purporting to be a bit more street smart than she should be. She’s outgrown that.
Today there is the vulnerability which comes from strength and confidence. That’s what causes a performance to be intimate and authentic. Forget the polish. Simply know that your music stands on its own merits no matter what you decide to try with it tonight. Rework it, rearrange it. Doesn’t matter. Don’t bother trying to replicate a recording, which by it’s very nature becomes a bit of a museum piece.
The woman who wrote those songs has grown up. Her outlook on life has certainly changed. Those characters, stories and lyrics are timeless. They remain as real today as they did 40 years ago. That’s the mark of an artist whose work transcends. Maybe one of these days the folks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will wake up. No disrespect to the likes of Pat Benatar or Stevie Nicks. But her art demands to be admitted.
It was a night of familiarity and new takes. Coolsville was atmospheric, halting and mesmerizing. You could hear a pin drop. Nobody wanted to make a sound when the song ended. We Belong Together took on a darker tone and seemed sprung from Springsteen’s Darkness At The Edge Of Town.
RLJ’s last album Kicks was slated to be a rocker. But as she informed us: “Whenever I set off in some direction, I usually end up going in another.” Instead, she ended up recording songs she’d picked up along the way. For whatever reason they moved her. She found some spark and provided her own spin. As delightful as her originals were, those new covers were sublime. The aforementioned Elton John cover. A couple of Dean Martin, Lee Hazelwood penned tunes in Houston and You’re Nobody Til Somebody Loves You. Patti Page’s Lucky Guy. The Brenda Lee classic Cry. I was blown away by her Americana, gunslinger spin on Bad Company. The covers ran the gamut. And we got to hear them simply because she chose to sing them last night.
This was a show that was anti rock star, anti image. Genuine rather than slick. Joyful as opposed to forced. Designed to please the players on stage rather than pander. She made us feel like we were friends and were welcome to her world. She’d finish a song and flash that smile at the audience or her band mates. It lit the room. It was one of those nights when you left the party and said to your spouse: “That was such a delight. Don’t we have such wonderful friends?”
One day in the distant future, Rickie Lee Jones will no longer travel the world singing her songs. On one hand, that’s something to be concerned with because nobody else is going to be performing those songs. She’s a unique artist. Who else can sing like RLJ? But the music itself will continue to breathe. Songs like Chuck E’s or Weasal and The White Boys or Danny’s All Star Joint will work as well tomorrow as they did 40 years ago when she first laid them down. And forever after last night, whenever I hear them, I will see that Cheshire Cat smile hanging in the air as the last note fades. Until that time, I’ll be sure to never miss another opportunity to see her flash that grin in person.