Norah Jones w/ The Candles @ The Riverside Theater
June 2, 2017
If versatility defines Norah Jones’ 15 years as a solo recording act, composure is as apt a descriptor as any for her at her performance Friday at the Riverside Theater.
Moving from the instrument with which she found her initial fame, piano, to organ and guitar during the course of her 19-song performance, she didn’t look to be breaking a sweat. Neither did she display much in the way of exertion, as her soft, sometimes strident singing blurred the genre boundaries between jazz, folk, country, R&B and pop. That kind of organic stylistic path-finding puts her on a short list of commercially successful, critically lauded American musical gadabouts, at the top of which is arguably Ray Charles.
Of course, when Charles was coming up, there was no such thing as an adult album alternative radio format, nor the concomitant branding and imaging of lifestyle sold around it. Nor did he float from one style to another over the course of one album as Jones regularly does. By dint of millions in sales and her vagabond muse, Jones epitomizes the breadth and urbanity of the AAA milieu. Jones’ album of last year, Day Breaks, harkens to her 2002 breakthrough, Come Away With Me, in its gently being all over the place.
Fairly gently, anyway. Beneath the serene vocals of the title track lies a bit of trip-hop melodic abstraction giving an edge to her languid melancholy. “Flipside,” best heard apart from its heavy-handed video, simmers with a propulsively funky soul-jazz fire. The political morphs into the spiritual on “Peace.” As one of her numbers where she pared her down her accompanists to a stand-up bassist and drummer, it allowed her to indulge in the sort ivory tickling that set off her embrace from VH1 and, soon enough, the culture at large.
In her minimal chatting between songs, Jones sounded grateful to be back in Milwaukee and referred to the Riverside as a second home of sorts. Perhaps she wasn’t in a loquacious mood, but the enigmatic imagery and narrative behind some of her songs, such as the Tom Waits-redolent “Sinkin’ Soon” and “Tragedy,” would have benefited from some contextualizing spiel. Compensating a bit for that absence was the relative warmth of her two encores, presented with her strumming an acoustic guitar with her bandmates surrounding in a familial image that might have mirrored numerous scenarios from the pre-’70s “Grand Ole Opry.”
Jones’ band was at least partially comprised of some of her opening act, New York City band The Candles. Interestingly, that band performed three of their eight songs with an incomplete lineup, as members of the quartet joined singer Josh Lattanzi on stage over the course of subsequent tunes. Though positioned as Americana by some writers, their sentimentality and tunefulness could also be heard as a kind of unplugged power pop, with Gin Blossoms being a kind of template or parallel. The way they ramped up their presence may have contributed to a certain lack of engagement, but by the time they finished, they had built up enough energy for a longer set to have been a welcome prospect.