Uh-oh. It looked ominous from the beginning.
Rickie Lee Jones announced at the outset of her performance Monday night at the Dakota that she’s known for being unpredictable, so she was going to open with a song that’s never come first in her set – a slow, druggy rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Was it going to be one of those nights where the mercurial Jones wallows in her depression?
Nope. She didn’t mope after that pained but powerful opening indulgence. In fact, it turned out that she was in a pretty good mood. Good voice, too. For 110 minutes, Jones gave the kind of rewarding, generous performance that has earned her a reputation as one of pop’s most artful originals.
She was in such good spirits that she even accommodated a request for 1979's “Chuck E’s in Love,” her only hit, and then afterward, explained that she seldom enjoys doing that song “but I enjoyed that. Thanks for asking.”
Her conversation wasn’t always so polite. Let’s see, when she needed a tissue for her nose, she talked about Lyle Lovett giving her a hanky once and, after she used it, she didn’t know whether to return it with the snot in it (her words), wash and then return it, or keep it. And then there was her kvetching about looking for a new place to live in New Orleans where $300,000 buys you a little shack, she noted. And then she boasted about the new white dress she bought for her return to the Dakota and, after the first song, she realized that she couldn’t sit on a stool and play guitar wearing that dress; so she stood for the rest of the night except when she sat at a grand piano.
The story that hit the hardest was when Rickie Lee was 8 or 9 in 1963, her mom was holding down two jobs and her brother didn’t properly cook the Thanksgiving turkey (it wasn’t even thawed out) while Mom was at work, so the family went without Thanksgiving dinner. The holy-roller neighbors (her words) from across the street arrived offering turkey, fixings and the whole nine yards, and Mom said thanks but no thanks – “ we don’t take charity.”
Stories like that offered a little insight into the not-so-wonderful life Jones has had. But, of course, there was resilience and even some joy. She glowed during “It Must Be Love,” closing it with sweet cooing, and she’s never seemed more playful than on the tuneful “Horses.” Overall, the set turned out to be a satisfying career retrospective, with a fairly heavy emphasis on fan-friendly and not experimental material.
Some of the song choices could probably be attributed to the presence of guitarist/harmonica player Sal Bernardi, Jones’ longtime friend and former collaborator who backed her Monday (she lured him from Paris, she boasted) along with cellist Ed Willett (who looks like a young Gary Busey).
So she gave us “Weasel and the White Boys Cool,” which was about Sal and his pals; “The Real End,” which she said was inspired by Sal, and “Tigers” (with lots of eerie and Eastern guitar passages) and the harmonica-fueled “Living It Up,” recordings on which he was involved.
One of the highlights was "It Was a Very Good Year” delivered as sort of a Brechtian cabaret song, followed by Jones’ own desolate treatment of “Last Chance Texaco,” a lonesome ending to an artful, emotion-packed show.
By the way, the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter did not mention that she has launched a Pledge Music campaign to raise money so she can record a new studio album – her first with new original material in more than 10 years – with an orchestra.
Jones, who turns 59 on Friday, will play again at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Dakota. Per her request, no food or drink service will take place during her performance.