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Norah Jones and the Handsome Band

Live in 2004 [DVD]

(Blue Note; US DVD: 16 Nov 2004; UK DVD: 15 Nov 2004)

Close Your Eyes

About halfway through Live in 2004, the apparent dichotomy of performer versus entertainer rears its ugly head, and Norah Jones and the Handsome Band are powerless to stop it. Norah and her Band are in the ‘performer’ corner, fresh meat for the whirlwind that shows up in the form of ‘entertainer’ Dolly Parton, who goes ahead and blows them all off the stage for five minutes. She, er, they perform “Creepin’ In”, which also featured Parton on Jones’ 2004 album Feels Like Home, and it’s impossible to not be awestruck as Jones tries her best to turn it into something that sounds like everything else in her oeuvre while Parton hoots, hollers, and whoops it up with the entire audience. The contrast between the two is absolutely jarring. As Parton leaves the stage to a standing ovation, all beaming smiles and loud red frilly outfit, anyone watching is left with the distinct, vaguely disappointing feeling that there’s a very good chance the concert’s high point has passed.


Well, perhaps we should start at the beginning.


Norah Jones is a performer who has made quite a name for herself as an anomaly in pop music. She’s released two albums thus far, both of which have sold millions upon millions of copies, yet she’s not by any means flashy, her songs never quite get past mid-tempo, and her voice is very likely more suited to 1940s jazz standards than today’s pop charts. She’s an unlikely hero of adult contemporary, someone who’s managed to make music for moms and dads that won’t get savagely mocked by the kids. Even in the wake of all of her success, she manages to maintain a humble persona that makes her very easy to respect, even for those who aren’t exactly fans of her work.


Still, the question remains: Can she translate that combination of talent and humility into a convincing live show?


The maddening, unsatisfying answer: It depends on what you’re looking for.


Live in 2004 serves as confirmation that, yes, Norah is Norah, and effectively drives home everything that has now become part of the “Norah Package”. Quiet, withdrawn demeanor? Check. Slow, peaceful tunes? Check. Total control over a positively velvet voice? Check. What it all adds up to is that anyone who has truly loved everything that Jones has done to this point will be more than pleased at the live takes on their favorite songs here, because darn if she doesn’t make them sound just like their studio-polished counterparts.


Problems arise when the search for something more becomes a priority. For much of the performance, Jones looks positively bored, going through the motions. She gently taps the piano keys, sways, or taps her hand on her hip depending on whether she’s sitting at the piano, on a stool, or standing, and there’s simply no emotion to be derived from her limited set of facial expressions. She speaks to the audience as if it’s the last thing she wants to do, often falling into mumbles or tripping over her words. The audience, for their part, is quiet and polite, clapping at all the right times. And the Handsome Band? Well, generally, they are pretty handsome, but otherwise just as nondescript, save the occasional nifty flute or mandolin solo that shows up and gives the viewer a reason to like band member ‘X’ just a little bit more. The band’s most impressive feat is their restraint, as they manage to keep from outshining a leader who herself refuses to truly sparkle.


There are, despite these problems, wonderful moments to be found. Jones’ modification of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” into the sublime “Don’t Miss You at All” is done solo under a warm blue light, evoking a sort of intimacy that the rest of the disc fails to achieve. Guest stars are ushered in and out with all the grace of a three-legged donkey, but their presence lends an air of something new to the proceedings, keeping the whole thing from getting too sleepily monotonous. The DVD extras house a cute, engaging video for the excellent album track “Those Sweet Words”. The most satisfying moment of all, however, appears in the very first song on the disc, a rehearsal take of Feels Like Home‘s “What Am I to You?”. As Jones is plodding through the song in her workmanlike manner, guitarist Adam Levy extends a lovely high-pitched note through a number of measures coming out of the bridge. For a brief instant, Jones snaps out of her trance, noticing the note enough to smile a surprised smile at just how beautiful it sounds. The moment passes as quickly as it arrives, but that brief glimpse of spontaneous emotion is refreshing and absolutely necessary.


Still, it all comes back to Dolly. Parton’s overpowering presence makes everything else here feel small and inconsequential, and her exuberance and charisma only serves to point out that the rest of this DVD is best enjoyed eyes closed. Close your eyes, and you can enjoy the music without the tepid performance of it getting in the way. Close your eyes, and Jones’ beautiful voice and obvious piano talent transport you to the same white, puffy clouds that they always did before. Close your eyes…


...and you can’t help but wonder: Was a DVD really necessary, when a CD would have been sufficient?

Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.


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