Chicago not her kind of town?

May 9, 2007


The most devoted fans of chart-topping singer-songwriter Norah Jones often say that to fully appreciate her depth as an artist, you have to see one of the low-key, under-the-radar cabaret gigs in her native New York, where she lets her hair down, loses herself in the music and casually dabbles in everything from countrypolitan to punk rock.

The best moment during Jones' sold-out performance at the Chicago Theatre Tuesday night was in this loose and spontaneous spirit. It came as the very first song of the evening, when the more than 17 million-selling artist simply appeared onstage unannounced at the start of the opening set by M. Ward and joined the guitarist and vocalist for a gorgeous duet on Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou."

Though plenty of fans and the folks controlling the CD players in yuppie coffeehouses from coast to coast obviously disagree, the problem with Jones' recordings, including her recent third album "Not Too Late," is that they lack that sort of spontaneity, feeling sterile, unduly cautious and -- let's face it -- downright boring.

The same was true of long stretches of Jones' more than 20-song performance, especially what she called "the creepy part of the set." Then, during plodding tunes such as "Rosie's Lullaby," whatever genuine passion the artist has was smothered by the dark red and blue lighting, the fussy faux-jazz arrangements of her five-piece band and the feeling that she was really holding back with the understated delivery of her breathy vocals.

At other points, thankfully, Jones' fire burned brighter. Among these highlights: covers of the Dixie Cups' "I'm Gonna Get You Yet" and Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart"; a rollicking, percussion-heavy "Sinkin' Soon"; an unexpectedly funny reading of "My Dear Country" and the version of "Little Room" delivered as a duet with her bassist/multi-instrumentalist, childhood friend, former roommate and native Chicagoan, Daru Oda.

Nothing topped the tossed-off brilliance of that earlier duet, though, and you have to wish Jones would trust her instincts enough to tear it up at the Chicago Theatre the way she would at a dive on the Lower East Side.

The rest of the opening set by underground favorite M. Ward didn't match the peak of "Blue Bayou," either. Ward didn't take any chances in front of Jones' well-heeled crowd, and he largely avoided songs from his much-acclaimed 2006 album "Post-War" in favor of safe-bet, pleasant but pandering covers by Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and the Ronettes, among others.