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