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NEW YORK — “I’m looking forward to playing you some new songs,” Rickie Lee Jones said to the crowd at a sold-out Joe’s Pub Friday night. But it was a tease: When fans cheered at the prospect, she wagged her finger and protested that the material she’s working on was still too “fragile” for public consumption, and “looking forward” to performing them was all she’d do.
Jones is recording a new album — her first of original material in five years — in New Orleans, where she recently moved. “I didn’t have any friends in LA,” she complained. “I lived there so long. I couldn’t get anyone to come over and go to a movie.” Her new life, she sighed, is “full of fireflies and neighbors who wave.” Instead of a preview of these Louisiana-penned songs, listeners got a concentrated dose of the past, with half a dozen songs from her self-titled debut LP and only one original (the Leonard Cohen-ish “Altar Boy”) that was released after 1989.
She opened and closed the evening with covers (“Sympathy for the Devil” and “The Weight”) that were so beautifully transformed, with iconic phrasings smartly mangled and new melodic ideas emerging, they made the wait for new songs enjoyable. (Both were on The Devil You Know, her 2012 covers disc produced by Ben Harper.) But as is Jones’ wont, even her best-known songs sounded fresh here, delivered in a voice that has hardly suffered from decades of use. The challenging, high intervals on “Weasel and the White Boys Cool,” for instance, were sure-footed; “The Last Chance Texaco” got as diaphanous as possible without turning insubstantial.
She reserved the night’s most poignant songs for the small chunk of the set she spent behind the piano, playing “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” and standout “The Horses,” whose optimistic sentiments were bruised in the delivery and warmer for following a dark rendition of “Coolsville.”
On guitar Jones was more playful, from the groovy “Young Blood” to a nostalgic take on “Easy Money” that was loose enough it hardly mattered that she flubbed a few lyrics. Standing very close to the edge of the stage, with a line of seated patrons drinking at her feet, she joked that she felt like a stripper, but “without those $20 bills.” When a fan pulled one out and stuck it in her boot, a running joke was born. “F— selling t-shirts!” she said — though after a while, the joke seemed to need adjusting. “The communist/socialist/anarchist wants to take this twenty…” she began, and then tossed it into the crowd at someone other than the male fan who’d put it in her boot. Political itchiness resolved, she got back to the show.
It wouldn’t have been possible for the crowd to be more silent during this close-quarters set; eventually, the singer gave fans permission to make a little noise. Some chimed in on the chorus of “Living it Up,” but aside from between-song requests, listeners were respectfully rapt. The real audience participation didn’t come until the encore’s last song, “The Weight,” where The Band’s cathartic line “put the load right on me” seemed designed for singalong. Jones beamed when one particularly enthusiastic listener beat her to the punch on those words, ending the set with the same informal friendliness that kicked it off.
Sympathy for the Devil
Weasel and the White Boys Cool
The Last Chance Texaco
It Must Be Love
On Saturday Afternoons in 1963
We Belong Together
Living It Up
Chuck E’s in Love
Running from Mercy
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