The Chicago-born, California-formed, and New Orleans-residing songstress, Rickie Lee Jones, and her adroit trio illuminated the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport earlier this month. This was her fifth time playing this venue, and the fifth time I have seen her live — though the first time on this stage. My prayer is that this performance was recorded and will be released in the future: It was the best performance that I have seen her give.
Dressed in black, she took the stage to thunderous applause – her wide, jack-o-lantern smile shining beneath her blonde mane. As she struggled to tune her guitar at one point, someone from the crowd yelled, “You look beautiful tonight, Rickie.” This was met by laugher, applause, and Jones wryly responding, “It must be my lipstick.”
Jones, along with master percussionist/vibraphonist Mike Dillon and the multifaceted guitarist, keyboardist, and trumpeter Kai Welch, played fourteen songs, all from her first four studio albums, half of them from her Grammy award-winning, eponymous debut. Between songs, she told stories – some funny, others offering insight into how certain songs, such as “Coolsville” and “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963,” were composed. Her next-door neighbor, who owned a piano, became her first agent. He kept the instrument at his house to ensure that Jones would practice. When they were making her first album, he purchased a café across from where they were working and would send the twenty-four-year-old Jones across the street to write on the piano. This is how she penned “Coolsville” and “Saturday Afternoons.”
The first two songs of the night lasted twenty minutes. The music that emerged from the trio – with Dillon switching between the vibraphone, drums, and conga-toms; Welch holding the melody and bassline on keyboards; and Jones singing complex intervals while strumming her acoustic guitar – became a jam-session that the audience was blessed to experience. “This will never happen again,” I thought to myself, hoping it would be captured on video or vinyl.
Between her first two songs, Jones thanked her audience. Having spoken with her over Zoom lately, I know that her gratitude was not just an acknowledgement of the applause. Hopeful that we are nearing the end of the COVID-19 lockdown, she said, “People just want to be together.” Jones, like many musicians, performed a few Facebook concerts from her living room during the pandemic, but confessed that it isn’t the same. “People are starving for connection,” she told me.
There is no doubt that the Duchess of Coolsville connected with her fans. Her concerts are conversations with her audience as much as they are performances. Her tales between tunes cover everything from the nostalgic, to the heart-wrenching, to the comic. Before performing “Horses,” the opening track from Flying Cowboys, which also appears on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack, Jones commented on how a cover of the song by Daryl Braithwaite, which she wrote as a lullaby for her daughter Charlotte, became a mammoth success in Australia. In fact, in January 2018, Braithwaite’s version, which peaked at number one on the Australian singles charts, was ranked fourteen on the list of the top 100 Australian songs of all time. Jones commented on how the video features horses running on the beach. She japed, “I thought of them as a metaphor.”
The highlight of the night was her rendition of “Company,” which, along with six other cuts she sang to this intimate, sold-out crowd, came from her first album. With Welch on the grand piano, Jones received a standing ovation as the final line, “Someday you may hear me still crying for company,” brought literal tears to the eyes of onlookers, myself included.
The 67-year-old body of Rickie Lee Jones is catching up to her soul. Listening to her early work, and reading the stories in her new autobiography Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an America Troubadour, one realizes that her spirit was always mature. Her voice, which can sooth and intimate a horn in the same breath, belongs to one who has lived many lives, and survived all of them. Concluding with her biggest hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” Jones bid the crowd goodnight, returning for a simple bow with her band by the backstage door.
Do yourself a favor: see this two-time Grammy winner when she returns to area, which she does often.