The Evening of her Strangest Show?
by Stephen Grayce

   It's official. Rickie Lee Jones hates me.

   As a longtime fan of the pop-jazz icon, I had struck out twice before when it came to seeing her perform live.  First, an illness cancelled an Orlando show that I'd been banking on for years, around the time of the Traffic From Paradise tour I think. The second miss came when I was heading West on vacation a couple years ago and found out, about 2 minutes after it sold out, that she was performing in Austin near where I was heading. (OK, Arizona isn't really that near Austin unless, like me, you really want to see Rickie Lee Jones) And this February 3rd date in West Palm Beach, to promote her daring, excellent new CD, The Evening Of My Best Day, already had a small cloud crying on me before I even got there. Budding photog that I fancy myself, I had asked for a photo pass just in case; the case was, however, that only reviewers got photo passes. Great, I thought: that means there's lots of interest, all the photo passes are gone, I'd just be in the way.

   As it turns out, there were no photographers whatsoever, and no press coverage. At first I was bummed; by the end of the night, I considered it a cross between a fan's dream missed and a blessing. It is ironic that I have now decided to review the show here myself, and have become that guy that could've actually gotten a photo pass to a very interesting show indeed had he worked for the right big-wig rock rag.

  A half-hour late (as, sadly, were some of the concertgoers), Jones took the stage at the small, intimate Carefree Theater with her 6-piece band, which boasted longtime cohort Sal Bernardi on guitar and harmonica, keyboard stalwart Neil Larsen (bouncing at blinding speed between keyboards, percussion and brass), and a two-man crack horn section (which Neil made three at times). Rickie herself looked a little different than I had expected; longish non-flowing skirt, simple pretty blouse, glasses and a hat, almost librarianlike in contrast to her recorded image in my mind. And the music at first threatened to match; as the band began "Flying Cowboys", with a mix that reduced the spoken-word verses to a dull oatmeal under a sea of drums, and a motionless Jones speaking and singing into a horizontally-mounted microphone that afforded a view of nothing between the bridge of her nose and her neck for much of the show, there was a sense that they were all still finding their feet a little bit, at least tonight.

  After this first tentative step, the audience, which by most reports has always felt comfortable enough to shout whatever words of love to the stage at Jones' shows they feel like shouting, let her know that she was barely audible. This was fixed soon enough, adjusted through the paths of the new "It Takes You There" (with a very nice onstage fade/disintegration at the end, very nice indeed) and "Satellites", another fine Cowboys track. The band, and Rickie herself, seemed to relax and get past the early trouble. God knows the audience had kicked into worship mode regardless, and the glasses and hat were long-gone already. Good signs all around, I thought.

  Then the real show began. Jones and company dove headfirst into a very solid, funky take on "Little Yellow Town", from the fan favorite Ghostyhead, one of her most singular and bold albums besides, well, the new one. What was trip-hop mixed with beat poetry on record was more forceful and funky as hell live, with playful layers (and its famous left-field middle jazz break resplendently intact). Jones punched the song's unexpected guitar figures in like a human sampling machine, as if her mission was to monkey-wrench the flow just in time to keep you from categorizing it. It worked; it was an amazing high point.

   The rest of the performance mixed a very healthy majority of the new CD with three favorites from her first 1979 debut: "Weasel and the White Boys Cool", with its legato "Sal, say goodbye" choruses mellowing the mood between the hot bop of the verses; a jumping "Young Blood", echoing  the cool pump of the fun summer night it chronicles; and crowd fave "The Last Chance Texaco," with Rickie's voice and the horn section melding for the astounding passing-car noises at the end.

   The 8 new songs in the set sounded very good as well, ranging from the bluesy, testifying "Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act Now)" to the pulsing what's-all-this-then tattle of "Little Mysteries" (both songs are gaining notoriety for their blatant criticism of a certain American political regime; one couple who had no idea there was even a new album to promote actually left, aghast at this attack of democracy on their rich Republican world), and then to the feather-delicate verses of "Sailor Song," where Rickie makes a new, vital piece of work ring with the familiar feel of a traditional folk song, a singular skill that she patented early in her career with songs like "Skeletons" from the Pirates album, which evoke both the beauty and sadness of innocence and the loss thereof. Tonight, as an audience member shouted that song title out as a request, Rickie mused, "I would really like to do that song. I wonder if I could remember it."

  There were a couple of curious flags waved during the performance. While it didn't show to the audience in her singing after the first number, Jones mused aloud at one point that she wasn't feeling her best (although it was never noted whether that was a physical or mental thing; a rumored late arrival in town just 2 hours before the show, thanks to a delayed flight, was mentioned by some as a frustration factor after the fact). And while still well-done live, the new "Mink Coat at the Bus Stop" abandoned the jarring lock-step-versus-blues rhythm juxtaposition of the recorded version, opting for blues-meets-blues. On the disc, the butting-up feels almost like a mistake until you get into it; it is then one of the album's most rewarding artistic pleasures, and was missed live.

  In hindsight, more clues also appeared for what followed. While music of this complexity by a large band on a small stage requires amazing craftsmanship at least and the virtuosity of the gods at best, the ensemble rose to the challenge, at least in the ears of the audience. But with asides of "do that again, and follow me" and the like to the musicians, Jones once in awhile seemed mock-frustrated, like it wasn't always going exactly like she wanted it to, but not mock-frustrated enough that anyone off the stage felt she was real-frustrated. And the occasional technical gaffe showed up; an effects box buzzed until connections were checked and tape was put down, and Jones noted that her guitar tech had misadjusted her guitar straps, causing her guitar to push against her; she stated slyly that he would pay later. If there were any real problems or major trouble in the works, it was lost for the most part on the admiring throng, who relished every note and missed mistakes, real or imagined, once the initial vocal mix was fixed.

  So imagine the surprise when, after a just-over-an-hour set, and at the end of the sly Bush-slam of the new CD's complex "Ugly Man", Rickie Lee Jones spoke a terse, perfunctory "thank you, good night" into the microphone and left the building. At first, the audience missed any hint of woe; they and I assumed either a regular encore was forthcoming, or an intermission followed by (dared I dream?) a few solo acoustic songs, Jones at her most intimate, the one her best fans froth at the mouth just thinking of every time they listen to Girl At Her Volcano. But as the time went on, and our clapping hands began to hurt, and lights flickered, and finally Bob Dylan's voice eased into the sound system as he had pre-show, the crowd realized that there would be no encore. For some reason, one that they surely hadn't noticed, Miss Jones had left the building in more than one sense. And I found myself thinking, as others obviously did, that maybe we did something wrong that someone wasn't telling us about. Is it us? Tell us, we'll change!

  Theories surfaced, mostly musical. Foolish Pollyanna that I am, I waited with two other fans for a couple of hours near the bus, hoping against any rational hope that Rickie would at some point take pity and come out to sign our vinyl albums, those holy testaments to a respect and fandom that you can't fake nowadays. As we stood there dumbfounded, like people who'd just found out they'd missed a train, we drank in snippets of overheard conversation from the deafening whispers that surrounded us on all sides. Missed musical cues, they said. Jones was livid. Jones wasn't coming out, maybe ever. By the time the musicians had finished packing and finally entered the bus,  I found myself praying that they lived through the night. And as the concertgoers bounced off each other's stunned silences outside after the unexpected real end, while the valets were plunged into the nightmare of having to fetch hundreds of cars really fast, Rickie Lee Jones became headlights, and we, the fans, the crew, the band, the world, became deer, blind and dumbfounded and clueless as to what they'd seen or why.

   My arrival at the venue had begun with a confusing detour, thanks to the mind-numbingly slow demolition of a building close to the venue. Then the agonizing bad-boy moment when I considered and abandoned the concept of smuggling my camera in (as later was proven, in the corner with no flash, I'd have at least scored one good shot for my personal been-there-saw-them photo album). And then my dream concert, after two misfires, sent me three-plus hours away from home only to feel like it must feel when you're at a really good party that experiences a sudden, total power failure just as you start dancing to a song you've waited to hear all night. Rickie Lee Jones hates me, I thought. The RLJ Curse, which I frankly should have seen when it first slapped me in Orlando years before, was now impossible even for an idiotic, all's-well-that-ends-well-believing fan like me to ignore. As the stern usher told me I'd have to go because they were closing the doors and had no security left to ensure my safety (damn, did they think she'd jump out of the bus and kick my ass?), I didn't know whether to rip my treasured album jacket in half and lay it in front of the bus in a display of the free speech Rickie savors so well on her latest collection of songs, or to just stop freezing and sniffling and get in the freakin' car. I did the latter, which I shall occasionally regret forever. Given how my evening had gone, I also imagined the whole way home that my house would be burglarized when I got there to complete the sad picture of my day. After all, everything else was a buzzkill to that point, and Murphy's Law dictated continuance. Mercifully, however, my cats had guarded the house and all was well at home.

  As I sit here the next day, with a CD of her first album beside me, deeming myself worthy of in my small way telling somebody with this review what happened in the USA last night, everything has changed. I can't help wishing that someone could've told Rickie that no one but her was noticing any trouble, that we loved her and the music and all was well, that two wrongs don't make a right (especially at 35 bucks a ticket), that the show must go on and all that crap that dreamers believe.

  On the cover of the disc of said debut, Rickie, smoking in red beret, used to seem to say, "I'm here, let's do this." Now she seems only to mutter, "I'm smoking, don't bother me." The end of the innocence is here and I am a better man for it. At least I'll get a song out of it for my next album. And, damn it, I'll buy her next one too I'm sure.


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