I enjoyed Norah Jones’ concert at TSB Arena quite a bit more than I expected to. Ever since her debut album Come Away With Me cleaned up at the 2002 Grammys and made Ravi Shankar’s daughter a jazz-pop sensation, she’s pretty much owned the phrase “middle-of-the-road”, while somehow continuing to put out successful albums and soundtrack middle-aged dinner parties the world over. If I had to describe her sound in one word, it would be the backhanded adjective “pleasant”. But, as she and her band proved last Wednesday night, we can all do with some pleasantry from time to time, and the middle of the road can sometimes be a nice place to stop a while.
Put simply, Jones is a brilliant singer, and consistently so from the night’s first line to its last. It’s one thing to hear that voice in the context of her slick commercial productions, but quite another to hear her effortlessly reproduce those performances live, reminding you that, oh, that’s actually just what she really does sounds like.
In a similar way, the components that just blend into the hazy “pleasant” wash of her recorded work stand out much more live, drawing attention to themselves. In particular, I’m talking about the strong jazz influence of her compositions, the great instrumental playing from Jones and every member of her backing band, and of course the vocals. She spent a lot of time pulling out smooth piano solos between verses, often in combination with Pete Reem’s soul organ. Guitarist Dan Elken added the country influence with plenty of gorgeous pedal steel, while the double-Josh rhythm section (Adams on drums and Lattanzi on bass) were subtle and solid. Josh Adams, in particular, was captivating on drums in the more energetic moments (relatively speaking), moving between sticks, brushes and hands. All in all, it was a delight to listen to such a tightly rehearsed group.
Jones’ first New Zealand gig in fourteen years comes hot on the heels of this month’s Begin Again, her latest EP, and she opened the set with the new album opener My Heart Is Full, a moody buildup of a song. Other new songs like It Was You, the title track, and the set-closing tension-building Just A Little Bit blended into the setlist nicely, taking more of a robust soul direction than her other work.
The second song Nightingale, from her 2002 debut, was the first real wow moment vocally and gave me some new appreciation for her, which lasted through the rest of the night. That unit-shifting debut was well-represented to the eager audience, from the slow sultry lounge groove of I’ve Got To See You Again to the final encore Turn Me On, to the career-launching singles Come Away With Me and Don’t Know Why. Both of the latter drew cheers of recognition from the audience and were sung stunningly, Jones leaving her piano to strum an electric guitar for Come Away With Me and stripping things down to a piano-drums-bass trio setup for Don’t Know Why.
My enjoyment of the set was also greatly expanded by the inclusion of some fantastic covers, starting with Hank Williams’ country classic Cold Cold Heart. It was unexpected to me, unaware as I was that Jones had covered it on her debut, and the band gave it a nice groovy swing makeover. Shortly after, the original song Flipside, a stomping jam which injected some much-needed energetic dynamics into the set, merged into a section of J.J. Cale’s Don’t Go To Strangers, Jones’ voice fitting the melody as though it was written for her. Then there was my personal set highlight, the earthy country plod of Tom Waits’ Long Way Home - I have now found out Jones’ released her recorded cover long before Waits’ original surfaced on his rarities box set. You learn something new every day.
Norah Jones didn’t say much between songs, preferring to move quickly from one piece to another, so the set wrapped up after a quick hour and twenty minutes. This suited me - enough time to fully absorb her performance, but not quite long enough for her down-tempo sweetness to become too much of a drag. The crowd of fans seemed satisfied, and considering the favourite-filled setlist, there was good reason to be. I was satisfied too, to come away from a gig with more appreciation for a performer than I had going into it - and to witness some great musicians and an amazing singer do their thing.
- My Heart Is Full
- It Was You
- I’ve Got To See You Again
- Those Sweet Words
- Begin Again
- Cold Cold Heart (Hank Williams cover)
- Come Away With Me
- After The Fall
- Travelin’ On
- Don’t Go To Strangers (J.J. Cale cover)
- Long Way Home (Tom Waits cover)
- Don’t Know Why
- Just A Little Bit
- Turn Me On