Just six months ago, 24-year-old Brooklyn resident Norah Jones took home eight Grammy Awards. As it happens, what we thought was sweet, aw-shucks humility expressed during her acceptance speeches was actually genuine disbelief—a realization that she herself knew she wasn’t quite ready for this. Indeed she was not, if her 23 June performance at NYC’s Beacon Theater is any indication.
To her credit, Norah Jones has a beautiful voice. But so do many of the other contestants on American Juniors. Indeed, oftentimes the show felt like a high school piano / vocal recital with an audience ever-so-eager to applaud, coddle, and encourage the participant onstage for their courage and effort.
All fine and good, except one does not particularly enjoy paying $50 plus Ticketmaster (larceny) charges for a high school piano recital.
For those that don’t own her now-ubiquitous disc, Come Away With Me, Norah Jones plays adult contemporary pop infused with just enough touches of jazz, blues, country and full-lipped full-hipped girl-next-door good looks to win several Grammy’s in one clip. The father of this girl next door, however, was once called the finest musician on the planet (by David Crosby). But Ravi Shankar was mostly father-in-absentia, and Norah Jones was more influenced by the country-western underpinnings of growing up in Texas than by sitar-fueled mystic world music. Come Away With Me is essentially background music for a sunny Sunday morning, reading the paper and sippin’ your cup of Joe with your slippers on. When transferred to the spot-lit stage, however, closer inspection reveals that soothing and precious does not mean intricate or fascinating.
Unlike the female jazz vocalists she often emulates—Sarah Vaughn, Etta James, Nina Simone (who somehow have less Grammys combined than tonight’s performer)—Jones, like her music, is tame and subdued. Ok, I’ll say it . . . boring. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Snorah Jones.
Early in the performance, Jones announced to an excited audience her choice to cover the aforementioned late, great Nina Simone. But Jones’ version of “Turn Me On” did anything but; instead it fell limp on the tapestry-strewn floor (along with my expectations for the evening). Vocal and emotional restraint on a Nina Simone song simply don’t fly, but Jones seemed content to impress the audience with the fact that she had met and indeed learned the song from Simone herself. Similarly, the lack of emotion in other covers, such as The Band’s “Bessie Smith”, The Everly Brothers’ “Sleepless Nights”, and (ahem) AC/DC’s “Ride On”, revealed that the audience was supposed to be more impressed with her choices than with her actual renditions.
Jones’ stage banter with the audience was childish and quickly became repetitive. “I hope it sounds ok out there.” “Here is a new song well, it’s semi-new it’s not on the album.” “Thanks so much, guys. You’re so nice.” These musings reveal a quaint, naive, nice, considerate person—traits one might like in a friend, but not in a performer on a stage as exalted as that of the Beacon Theater (“It’s so nice in here. So classy.” Jones remarked at one point. Ho-hum.).
Jones received little help from her bandmates. While keyboardist / vocalist Dare Oda added some elegant harmonizing, and boyfriend/bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Andrew Borger kept things at least professionally jazzy, jangly mandolinist Kevin Breit’s finger-picking was downright shoddy. The ever-eager audience didn’t seem to mind Breit’s missing several notes and fret changes during his solo, however, as they applauded vigorously upon its completion.
Indeed, the positive audience response was repeatedly baffling, until a glance around the loge revealed a veritable army of blue-hairs . . . Springfield Retirement Castle must be pipin’ in Come Away With Me on heavy rotation (maybe even in place of the residents’ meds).
Towards the show’s conclusion, Jones (finally) rose from the piano and pretended to try to recreate a foot-stompin’ campfire hootenanny, but alas, she needs to do some more drinkin’, cowboy hat-wearin’, whorin’, and thievin’ before that sound can come across authentic and not canned. A cute, safe, and precious version of honky-tonk may sell records, but it comes off as an embarrassingly Disney-fied Hoopty Doo Review when performed on the living stage.
“Come Away With Me” and “Don’t Know Why”, played late in the set, were predictably crowd favorites, and predictably sounded exactly like they do on the album. When the concert finally ended and the lights went up, I was irked by the need to vacate my cozy dark Beacon Theater seat and go home to resume my slumber. Oh well; maybe once Jones adds as many more years to her life as she has Grammys, her life experience will turn her performances into something more than a glorified recital. Until then . . .