Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
Last Thursday night, as the lights came up on Norah Jones and the Handsome Band on the stage of Robinson Music Hall, a woman seated behind me gasped, “This is the first time I’ve seen her wearing a dress.” Even more surprising than her vintage 1950s-era Grand Ole Opry-style dress was the vintage Fender Mustang electric guitar hanging from her shoulder. Looking elegant and ready to rock, Jones and her band eased into a gorgeously languid version of “Come Away With Me” that set the tone for a night of seductive music decorated by Norah’s always enchanting voice.
That was not Jones’ first appearance on stage that evening. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, the singer joined opening act M. Ward for three songs during his set. She sang harmony on Ward’s song “Underground,” traded verses and background vocals in a playful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way” (dipping her voice down a la Cash for the chorus’ “da dum da dums”) and carefully picked her way through an apparently unrehearsed version of Willie Nelson’s “Permanently Lonely.”
Taking the wide view, Jones’ easygoing, stage manner was continually charming throughout her performance. Whether playing guitar, grand piano or Wurlitzer, she approached each song and each new instrument with the casual confidence of a well-seasoned session player.
Along with multi-instrumentalist Daru Oda and guitarist Adam Levy, Jones’ band included bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Andrew Borger. Like Jones, each member of the Handsome Band took turns at different instruments, constantly shifting to fill out the tonal spectrum of the evening’s set list. From the country-tinged rave-up “Creepin In” to the Tin Pan Alley blues of “Sinkin’ Soon,” Jones’ band adroitly navigated the subtle nuances of various musical styles. Only the chamber pop-ish song “Broken” seemed awkward — the musical counterpoint established between bowed upright bass, vibraphone and flute sounded a little too bombastic in comparison to the rest of the evening’s more laid back arrangements.
But it is hard to criticize anyone who can sing as effortlessly as Jones. Her take on Hank William’s “Cold Cold Heart” was nothing short of mesmerizing. Her voice reached the same lonesome edge as Hank’s original version, but still retained that cool, controlled approach in keeping with the jazz aesthetic. Likewise, “Humble Me,” a song written by former Handsome Band member Kevin Breit, showcased Norah’s admirable ability as an interpreter of song, her seductive voice bringing the song’s pathos into full light.
It wasn’t until the encore that the crowd was treated to the song that made Jones famous. Coming between a solo piano version of “Painter’s Song” and a full band rendition of Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home,” Jones eased into the plaintive and haunting “Don’t Know Why” from her 2002 debut. As the song softly came to its close, there was no denying the intoxicating delicacy of her voice.
— Charles Wyrick
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