June 01, 2010

Almost Coolsville

Filed under: 2010,Archive,Music

June 1, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones
Her Majesty’s
June 1.

When it was released, in 1979, the debut album from Rickie Lee Jones seemed to have everything.  Produced by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman when Warner Brothers was at the height of its patronage and creativity, it included  a line-up of the hottest session musicians of the day – among them Dr John, Tom Scott, Andy Newmark, even – on synthesizer – Randy Newman. It was an auspicious event. Those marvelous songs – Chuck E’s in Love, Easy Money, Last Chance Texaco, Coolsville – hummable, various, and filled with intriguing street detail. At the age of twenty-four Jones had stepped up to challenge Joni Mitchell and Carole King, and she had the talent to match.

As well as the looks. Photographed by Norman Seeff, she became a Rolling Stone cover girl and with her maroon beret, long brunette tresses, and down-cast gaze, all she needed was that Sobranie cigarette to complete the Left Bank, neo-Beatnik style. A bit Kerouac, a bit Brel – a whole lot Laura Nyro, if truth be told – it was a credible alternative to the pierced Punk which was also on offer at the end of the 70s decade.

Twenty years later, that promise has been fulfilled but not in the ways we might have imagined. Even at the height of her wealth and fame, selling millions of albums and walking out with that ultimate Hipster de jour, Tom Waits, the rose was sick – with addiction and celebrity anxiety, and the pressure to serve the corporate financial plan. After Pirates and The Magazine came a string of albums for a variety of different companies. They all reveal, nevertheless, a restless creative spirit who had the best of things at the beginning, but has never stopped developing as an artist even as her commercial career has dipped.

It’s been a long time since Jones last toured here and five years ago her Day at the Green bookings were cancelled because of insufficient sales. This time, though,  her star is on the rise. She has been feted by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at their Livid Festival in Sydney and she is performing new material from her excellent (fourteenth) album, Balm in Gilead.

On stage at (acoustically quirky) Her Majesty’s, Jones sets up in the corner right up back behind the piano. People near me, struggling for a sightline, ask if one of the cabinets could be moved. It’s part of the show, Jones shrugs, pointing to a carefully placed microphone, poised to carry sound from an elderly amp to the mixing desk. These are songs about friendship, she says by way of introduction, adding ominously –  friends who have gone. With plangent piano chords she begins, softly accompanied by bassist Jose Marimba.

The opening pieces are all early ones – from Pirates and The Magazine. First the mournful We Belong Together and then brighter songs – Living it Up and the slow swinging A Lucky Guy. She is in good voice, a little tortured – as her vocals often are – but that sense of the Rickie Lee Jones sound is irresistible. By the time drummer and percussionist Lionel Cole joins them on stage she is leading a sinuous extended jam of Weasel and the White Boys Cool, a highpoint for the night.

In a different vein is Remember Me from Balm in Gilead, a pitch perfect triple harmony country crooner that yet again displays Jones’s versatility. For an obscure choice she goes to Firewalker, an ecstacy inspired meditation from the  much overlooked and underrated Ghostyhead album. The set is well into the groove by now. Jones, in a cheesecloth blouse and baggy blue jeans, while friendly is often oblivious to the audience,  intent instead on her music- hunched over  her white Fender, leaning in towards  the other musicians who give her constant encouragement.

They head into improvisational territory with the highly inventive His Jewelled Floor, a religious work full of samples, bowed bass, synth washes and low church harmonies. It is a beautiful song and the performance is compelling but Jones becomes increasingly agitated by the microphone feedback which is distracting her. Her eyes dart to the off-stage sound mixer who is madly looking to fix things while the singer becomes ever more baleful.

The problem is not remedied and despite the increased ministrations from the other musicians Jones appears to have decided the spell is broken. The gremlins in  Her Majesty’s seems to have struck again and nothing is to be done . Rickie Lee Jones moves through a few more songs, including a haunting version of After the Fair (based on a story by Dylan Thomas)  and then, after a perfunctory curtain call, concludes with a solo performance, with acoustic guitar, of Bonfires, surely one of the most poignant goodbye-to-love songs she has yet written. It is a powerful conclusion to a set that has tilted off its axis. It has been a marvelous performance all the same. Not the smoothed out, no-surprises affair we usually get from our old favourite musicians,  but something that played out in its own way on the night. Rickie Lee Jones is as always idiosyncratic, a sensitive – an artist whose sensibilities sometimes tingle uncomfortably on the skin. She is, after all, from out there at Edge City – where they stick it into Coolsville.

1 Comment »

  1. Those Her Maj. gremlins spoilt an otherwise great performance.

    Comment by justin — January 5, 2011 @ 9:51 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment