Norah Jones at Musikfest: A Comfortable, Understated Evening

Words by Carrie Havranek; Photos by Laini

For someone who doesn’t get out to live music much anymore, but who spent most of her teen years and 20s at shows, my initial impressions of the Norah Jones concert on Saturday night at Musikfest were promising. The temperature was perfect; not too hot, not too cold. The sound level was right on, too: I didn’t leave feeling as though I’d instantly gotten tinnitus. And the length of the show was comfortable, considering the uncomfortable folding chairs–about an hour and a half.

Jones has a favorite sweater kind of voice–inviting, warm, and easy to listen to. These days, she’s playing more electric guitar, a change that has added some groovy muscle to her music. Since her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me–the soundtrack for every low-key evening or dinner party–Jones has proven she isn’t a one-hit wonder. After all, she’s on Blue Note, and that kind of caché still means something even if the Record Business is scrambling to reinvent itself.

Jones and her excellent, accomplished band played selections that pulled heavily from her fourth studio album, The Fall (2009) and selectively from older releases. The rootsy feel of these newer tunes is a natural evolution for an artist who has always shown an abiding love for country and western, folk, and blues–see all of her albums, along with side projects The Little Willies, a turn at vocals with The Peter Malick Group. She opened with a trio of tunes from The Fall, and moved from guitar to Fender Rhodes keyboard and upright piano, and stripped down a few numbers to offer a simpler, yet no less compelling renditions. Smokey Hormel played a deft lead guitar; Joey Waronker (excellent session musician who’s played with nearly everyone) played drums, and jazz artist Sasha Dobson filled out the harmonies, the banjo, the guitar, and percussion. Despite the fact that Jones mostly composes on guitar, she seemed much more fluid and at ease behind the keys–whether those of the Fender Rhodes or the upright, bright, saloon-style piano. These are minor observations, however, and somewhat understandable: the physical experience of standing up, with a guitar slung over your shoulder, is vastly different than sitting or even standing at a keyboard.

Jones is a cool and somewhat laconic performer. This fact shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did, considering the wistful yet reserved longing that permeates her music. However, in interviews and in other performances I’ve seen (including a guest appearance on Sesame Street!), she’s looser and more down to earth. During “Come Away With Me,” when a loud helicopter whirred overhead, she did pause to look up at it in acknowledgment, and at one point, she remarked upon how she swallowed several bugs during one particular song, but the audience was mostly held at a distance.

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I always like it when a performer who gained fame with a really sizable hit doesn’t open the show with that or simply save it for the obligatory encore. I like it even more when it’s rendered in a completely different style than the version that gained airplay and sold records and earned accolades.  Jones did just that with her slower, more ponderous version of “Don’t Know Why,” with just two backup vocalists and the piano to flesh out the chords. I’m guessing I am the minority here, because a sizable chunk of people filed out after Jones played that song, about three-quarters of the way through the show. I know people talk on the phone and text and do other things during concerts, and people carry on full-fledged conversations in movie theaters these days, because the lines between public and private spaces and how we consume our culture have blurred, but really? Really? You don’t have the decency to stay until the end of the concert? It’s beyond disrespectful. Performers see that. Jones has more than proven her chops, yet some people couldn’t take the time to care about her other albums, side projects, and indulgences in covers–who doesn’t love a Willie Nelson cover (“What Do You Think of Her Now?”)?

My favorite moments included a nearly cheek-to-cheek duet with Sasha Dobson for the cover of So Brown’s “Dauphin Island,” with Jones plinking at a toy piano and Dobson plucking at a banjo. Jones did not wax political or mention the genesis of the song; it’s a song that celebrates the sweet, simple pleasures of the destination, located off the coast of Alabama. I also liked the subtle humor of “The Man of the Hour,” which she introduced as “a song about my dog,” but whose lyrics reveal that the dog is a more suitable, loyal pal than a lover.

A final word about those who jetted out before the encore. Perhaps those who darted out early had to use the facilities; those Musikfest beer mugs are enormous. Perhaps they had babysitters at home to relieve; the median age of the audience seemed to be about 45. Or perhaps they did not feel engaged in the material or the performer herself, fresh off a European tour. Regardless, Norah Jones, I apologize to you on behalf of the Lehigh Valley. Some of us get what you’re doing and still really like the heavier, rootsier grooves you’re laying down these days. Please come back.

Carrie Havranek is a writer in Easton who still loves music criticism.

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