Concert review and set list: Norah Jones, whoever she is to us, crept in and got us to come away with her, at Peabody Opera House, Monday, October 15
The only true voyage of discovery…would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another… to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. –Marcel Proust, “Remembrance of Things Past”
That’s not to say she didn’t have dissenters — if the alternating shouts of “No more rock!” and “Rock on!” indicate anything, it’s that Ms. Jones draws a diverse, if not polarized fan base. This is no doubt due to the wildly variant aesthetics of her five albums. And true to our own respective aesthetic appreciation, we audience members clapped at various points as if opposing factions voting with some sort of applause-o-meter: “Let me hear it if you love ‘Come Away With Me’!” then “Show your love for ‘Not Too Late’!” and so on.
Indeed, Jones has a varied musical history, first earning five Grammys for her “contemporary adult jazz” piano singing on “Come Away With Me,” then “Feels Like Home” presented a sharp turn west with a much more country sound. But those that caught up with this divergence loved every pluck and twang and relished the discovery of the Dolly Parton and Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits we never knew she had in her. Jones’ first album of mostly self-authored songs, “Not Too Late” — this time shifting more blues — was again a success. Jazz, blues, country — what can’t she do?
Enter “The Fall.” Her first “breakup album,” “The Fall” was the first not to reach No. 1, garnering middling to ambivalent reviews peppered with words like “inoffensive” and “scarcely unoriginal,” suggesting this turn to rock was perhaps too sharp for fans to keep up. Or maybe too dull. But I would argue the problem with “TF” was not that she has no boyfriend; I would argue the problem was that it has no ghosts. OK, she’s got her dog, so she’s not totally alone, but still something was missing. “The Fall” has no history.
And I think her 2012 “Little Broken Hearts” suffers the same lack. This album’s turn to pop is no surprise (what’s left? classical?), various reviewers’ descriptors like “crackerjack” and “bubble gum” are, at least to me, apt. Norah said that “nobody can tell you you’re wrong for writing a song about how you feel — even if you don’t really feel that way.” I disagree; if it didn’t happen, then it’s not honest. “LBH” falls flat for that same lack of history. Yet some think it’s her best; they say you can hear the same old Norah but this time it’s new! It’s original! It’s her! It’s no wonder that the audience at the Peabody was at odds last night.
Here’s the thing: Norah is phenomenal. She has a voice that won’t quit and that has the most amazing range of earthiness and soul and clarity and fullness. I get it, jazz standards may not be as fulfilling as penning this year’s hottest song, and though pretty, a Hoagy Carmichael song is nevertheless “old, really old,” as Norah put it. Many may not relate. And an artist wants to be relevant.
But here’s the other thing: Norah doesn’t just sound pretty; she has the ability to re-cast something old into the most beautiful of new molds. There are plenty of Natalie Coles and Diana Kralls; there are even more pop stars, and surely even more female singers with a good set of lungs. And though I wouldn’t call her a pop sensation, I also argue that Norah Jones is no mere two-bit jazz karaoke crooner. There’s something special about her. She does not parrot, she illuminates; she’s not a soothsayer, but a conduit.
Perhaps Norah’s talent is not in divining the previously undiscovered nugget of gold; perhaps her real talent lies in an ability to reconstitute, reform, restore. Perhaps she is a medium, bringing forth those old musical ghosts, preserving and protecting them, repopulating our world with them. Maybe this isn’t about birth, maybe this is about reincarnation. It may not be original, but she certainly is creating. And I think it is a very special kind of art.
But that’s just my opinion. And it was clear last night that not everyone shares it (and I may get a plastic cup of merlot lodged at me for saying so). Last night, she had me mesmerized with the rich history of the musical past, amid the warm embrace of old memories, enjoying the company of these ancient ghosts she’d conjured. My friends were rocking out to her guitar reverb. Still others were grooving to her blues or jamming to her country. And still others were tending broken hearts amid some tall, tall pines.
Whatever camp you’re in, or even whether you’re a new fan, finally seeing redemption for your dad’s old “S’Norah” records, the truth is, Norah Jones, whatever she is to you, at some point, on some level, will get you to come away with her. She is a consummate singer, no matter which way you like her. Maybe her variations are OK. Or maybe they are pretty fucking awesome.
Cold Cold Heart
What Am I to You
Little Broken Hearts
Take It Back
After the Fall
It’s Gonna Be
The Nearness of You
My Dear Country
Don’t Know Why
Come Away With Me