Rickie Lee Jones hit the stage at the Cedar Cultural Center Thursday night with no hesitation. “Welcome to the cul-too-ral center,” she said. “The cab driver had an old song on the radio and smiled at me.”
On her acoustic guitar, she started plucking those familiar notes of her most famous, well only famous, song – “Chuck E.’s in Love.”
She had the near-capacity crowd at “Chuck E’s” – even if she stopped in mid-song and said it would help if the fans snapped along. With her band joining her, Jones kept the Cedar audience entranced with “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” and “Last Chance Texaco,” making it three favorites from her 1979 eponymous debut that helped her win the Grammy for best new artist.
When you start out with three home runs, how do you follow that? Indeed, pacing became an issue in Jones’ 100-minute performance, which was intriguing but not always engaging.
In good spirits, the smiling, chatty Jones, 60, seemed to deviate from her planned set list, which meant that she had to tell her band not to play on this song or that one. In fact, the five musicians sat onstage for a while with nothing to do.
When called upon, the musicians from Montreal added the right seasonings even if material from Jones’ new album, “The Other Side of Desire,” -- her first disc with new original tunes in a decade -- is New Orleans-flavored. The music was understated, a little guitar here, fiddle or mandolin there and some prominent piano. The rhythm section, though, was fairly subtle.
“Haunted” was enveloped in Southern soul sounds before devolving into a dirge. Based on a dream Jones had, “Infinity” was all dark and swirling. The piano-propelled “J’ai Connais Pas” was an admitted tip of the hat to Fats Domino. With Jones at the piano, “Christmas in New Orleans” came across as a nod to Tom Waits, though he would have gone lower on the final note whereas Jones, with that girlish voice, went higher.
All told, Jones did eight selections from her new album. In a way, she seemed to be playing many of them for herself without engaging the audience. The performances were not as compelling and nuanced as those on the new recording.
In the free-wheeling set, Jones offered a couple of sonic departures – “Dark Was the Night,” her contribution to a forthcoming Blind Willie Johnson tribute album delivered with an affected bluesy voice, and “Hi-Lili Hi-Lo,” a Hawaiian-sounding number (from the 1953 movie “Lili”) rendered with her charmingly childish voice.
Though friendly, Jones didn’t respond to the uncalled-for shout outs from people in the audience. One woman praised the day’s weather, another acknowledged the lion on Jones’ T-shirt as if it were a statement in support of Cecil in Zimbabwe.
The singer did accommodate a shouted request for “Satellites,” which she said was on the set list but she performed it earlier than planned. It was a lovely voice-and-acoustic guitar rendition that received big cheers.
The oldies clearly connected with the crowd. Even though the band and Jones struggled to find their footing on 1984’s “It Must Be Love,” the audience loved it. Ditto for the impassioned Jones piano piece “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” and the solo acoustic guitar encore “Young Blood” (both tunes from her debut) during which Jones got lost in her performance and took the listeners along with her.