I've asked this question many times before but ask again: When is an act not an act, a show not a show, a concert not a performance but an expression of what the artist is -- in that moment and in every moment of feeling?
I'm not waiting for an answer. Neither is Rickie Lee Jones.
Slated on a concert schedule of the fried and forgotten by all but the hardcore, KSHE-ossified boomers -- we're talking Wishbone Ash and Brewer and Shipley here -- Rickie Lee Jones appeared at the Wildey Theatre on the old main drag of Edwardsville, Illinois on Saturday night, but she played and sang as if she didn't know it.
"Where am I?" she asked midway through the set. "Edwardsville, OK, seems like a nice town. I ate some fish or something." If you're looking for the Wildey, it's the renovated movie house, across from the office of the Madison Record (Metro East's Legal Journal) and next door to Edwardsville Frozen Foods (Quality Retail Meat shop). If you're wondering what to expect, expect a small concert hall, floor capacity maybe 300, with fold up cinema seats, and a balcony beneath a ceiling twice as high as the room is deep or wide. Out front, a co-ed with a laptop in a ticket station the size of a phone booth rings up patrons, and next door there's a wine bar with a good selection. A double vodka pour will set you back $9. The hall itself is like a utilitarian, shrunken Sheldon, with good sound, though you wouldn't have known it on Saturday night. Jones barely tested the PA; she and her band -- Jeff Pevar on guitar and organ and Ed Willett on cello and tapping-of-cello -- played so quietly, so sparingly they could have unplugged fully and filled the room with whatever the hell Jones thought she was doing.
And that's the point: She wasn't thinking about what she was doing. She was just doing, and doing one of the most riveting shows, start to finish, of the year.
There was no opener. The 58-year-old singer, who has recently released The Devil You Know -- a collection of "covers" whose scare quotes will be explained shortly -- walked out from the shadows at 8:15 p.m. to begin with "Sympathy for the Devil," the first track on the aforementioned album, a song that classic and unclassic rockers know by heart. But they've never heard it like this before. Cradling a jumbo acoustic guitar, dressed in a sheer, flowing pancho, shaking her wild mane of hair, Jones started to curdle and chill and leech blood. "Please allow me to introduce myself," she whispered with a glottal shiver. And it got worse or better, depending on your tolerance for torturing an already well-tortured history. Pevar and Willett stared at her, watching every thump and strum -- who needs a jazzed-up rhythm section when you have Jones' sense of time? -- and following every move, even as she raised a muscular arm in the air to grab at something invisible above her. "Just call me Lucifer, I'm in need of some restraint!" Whatever this was, it wasn't a "cover."
And so whatever you think of Jones' foray into rock and folk standards, the strung-out minimalism of her interpretations -- and The Devil You Know isn't the first such project -- it's a smart move for an artist who still has it -- the voice, the chops, the presence, the blood-deep musicality -- but who suffers from writer's block, infamously and publicly. Of late, Jones has turned to collaborating with poets and philosophers, to digging up unfinished scraps of songs, and now and then emerging with something that doesn't pale next to the blues, jazz, rock and folk songbook she's always loved to sing. It would be one thing if she just knocked out Steely Dan's "Show Biz Kids" or Rod McKuen's "Cycles," but she fully rewrites them in her own way, fusing the former with the great original "We Belong Together" and whispering the latter with a surreal chill.
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