In 1983 Rickie Lee Jones released an EP called "Girl at Her Volcano" containing live tracks recorded at the Santa Monica Civic and studio cuts which didn't make it on to her first two studio albums. It had a certain notoriety for encapsulating the singer's altered state at the time of the live recordings, providing an unglossed version of what she was experiencing, or going through, and what her audiences saw at live shows, which were known to be erratic. It's hard to find nowadays, but well worth seeking out.
There simply was no other singer like Jones at the time, and there really hasn't been another one like her since, and to listen to her catalogue is to realize how profound her impact has been upon any woman who stood in front of a microphone in her wake.With the exception of Kate Bush, there really is no other female who has been a more influential vocalist on the pop or jazz scene since Holliday, Fitzgerald or Franklin in their primes. I don't care if you believe this or not, know this or not, it's just a fact.
Tonight, courtesy of SFJazz, residents of the Bay Area got to see Jones return to the volcano once more and witness a concert that was a different kind of melt-down for a performer who seemed poised to stage to triumphant comeback, though it had nothing to do with altered states.
The program featured her eponymous first album from 1979 and its follow-up, the masterpiece entitled Pirates (1981), which many fans consider her finest moment (though I would cast my vote for the much maligned and misunderstood The Magazine as the apex of what has without doubt been a brilliant career), played in their entirety.
A few years back, I can't remember how many at the moment, Jones came to San Francisco and played five straight nights at the tiny Cafe Du Noord, each show featuring a different ensemble tackling songs from her entire catalogue. The first night sucked, to put it bluntly. If I hadn't already bought a ticket for the second, I doubt I would have gone back for more punishment, but in the end I was glad I did, and I ended up attending four of the five shows, which reaffirmed my belief that Jones is a genius, though not an easy one.
That first night at the Du Noord, she had some guys backing her she'd obviously never played with before, as if she had passed by Oak Street and asked aloud, "who can play around here, I have a gig in an hour?" The next night some axe men showed up who had played with her before- and importantly, seemed to know her idiosyncrasies, and the result was magic. The entire stand, as musicians rolled across the stage depending on the whim of Jones' mood that day, turned out to be captivating and compelling, though greatly uneven.
Fast forward to 2011, and I was surprised but pleased to see Rickie Lee getting an obviously prestige gig at Davies Symphony Hall, the night before Tony Bennett was to take the same stage under the same sponsor. SFJazz has a solid reputation for presenting consistently high quality shows- their name on a gig is almost an imprimatur of quality few Bay Area performing arts organizations can boast of. Though with live performances there's never a guarantee, it's been my experience in the past three or four years that an SFJazz show rarely disappoints.
And yet Jones' shows was a mess from the first moment when she was announced over the PA at a volume that was shockingly loud. Starting off with "Chuck E.'s in Love," Jones' band seemed incapable of playing the song with any nuance, overfilling the arrangement of a song in which the empty spaces say as much as the notes and lyrics do. It wasn't a different arrangement, or at least it didn't sound like one to me- it just sounded like Jones, picking out the tune's riff on an acoustic guitar she was displeased with from the moment she first hit a chord on it, was the only one onstage who had any idea what it should sound like. The over-amplified sound mix was not only too loud for Davies, but from where we sat toward the back of the orchestra, it was unfathomably distorted, giving none of the musicians a break.
Jones' problems with guitars continued as she switched back and forth between a couple, and I almost felt pity for the hapless tech who was trying to make it right for her in what turned out to be a vain attempt as the singer grew increasingly frustrated with first her instruments, then the volume of the band, then the band itself. By the time they made it to "Weasel And The White Boys Cool" the band looked like it had little hope of getting it together.
When they began the material from Pirates things got even worse. The songs on this album are deceptively complicated in their arrangements and the band just floundered, with the three-piece horn section even completely missing their entrance on the title track, forcing Jones to start the song over again, which they had already done for "Living it Up." The drummer got an almost constant berating to speed it up or down, or just to follow her, and even though Jones went over and kissed him on the cheek afterward to make nice, the fact that the band was completely unrehearsed was laid bare on the stage for all to see. I could go on with a list of more that was completely off, but you get the point by now. As for Jones, while her voice hasn't aged well, what she no longer has in clarity she makes up for in her inimitable idiosyncrasies and phrasing. On top of that, she's still a magnetic presence on the stage.
The audience, which deserved a lot better than they got, seemed swayed by that magnetism and refused to acknowledge that at least for this gig, the Duchess had no clothes on. While I observed a slow but steady stream of exits during the show, at the end Jones and the band received a prolonged standing ovation. I have no idea why, but there you have it- I guess they "like it like that."
Later, while the Duchess of Reseda and I were talking about the show and much more at the bar of Sugar, Heidi Melton walked in, looking absolutely fantastic.