One of the last places I expected to be was at a concert featuring Norah Jones. And yet there I was standing no more than 20 feet away from her near stage right late last week at The Sinclair in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge.
Jones, the daughter of the late sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, was performing with her band Puss n Boots, which released their debut album No Fools, No Fun earlier this month. Puss n Boots is an all female alt.country supergroup featuring the triumvirate of Jones, Catherine Popper (former bass player for both Ryan Adams and Grace Potter and The Nocturnals) and jazz singer Sasha Dobson. The three have been playing together for more than five years in front of friends and at the occasional gig around New York City before deciding earlier this year they were ready to release an album and go on tour.
A little over a decade ago it was almost impossible to walk down the street without hearing Jones’ number one single “Don’t Know Why” being played. At the height of its success, I remember hearing it played full blast as I walked past the Berklee School of Music on Mass Ave one evening.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s an inoffensive, pleasant tune with strong yet understated vocals and a good jazz piano arrangement by Jones. But honestly I just found it bland and never connected with the song on an emotional level. After the 763,258th playing “Don’t Know Why” got downright annoying. Jones reminded me of Whitney Houston in the sense that she was a great singer but her material was just plain boring. But, as with Houston, clearly I was in a very tiny minority as Jones’ debut album Come Away with Me earned eight Grammy Awards and attained the rare Diamond status by the Recording Industry Association of America. Jones’ four subsequent albums have attained at least gold status.
I must also confess that I was put off by Jones after viewing a 2007 profile of her on 60 Minutes. It featured her performing an excerpt of a pretentious anti-Bush song called “My Dear Country” in which she sang “Who knows maybe he’s not deranged?” to approving laughter. It was as if Jones, who grew up deep in the heart of Texas, was trying to score brownie points with her East Village audience. Of course, I entirely expect people in the entertainment industry not to share my politics. I just wish they would express their views in an intelligent and rational manner and not act as if they were better or more enlightened than the rest of us.
So why I was willing to give Norah Jones another look?
Well, it comes down to the music. To be exact, one song — “Down by the River.” Written by Neil Young in 1969 while battling a 100 degree fever, it has been covered by scores of artists. I have yet to hear a bad version of this song. The best renditions have been recorded by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, the late guitar legend Roy Buchanan as well as Joey Gregorash. Like Young, Gregorash is a native of Winnipeg. For many years, he hosted a kids’ variety show called “S’kiddle Bits.” It might be difficult for a certain generation of Winnipegers to picture Gregorash singing a murder ballad.
The subject matter of “Down by the River” might not be to everyone’s taste, but for me it’s part of my musical litmus test. If you can play that song then you’re golden. Could Puss n Boots earn my seal of approval?
The evening began with a blues set by Dwight & Nicole, a duo consisting of Dwight Ritcher and Nicole Nelson. You might remember Nelson was a contestant on NBC’s The Voice a couple of years ago and got an unexpected iTunes hit out of her rendition of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.” Although Dwight & Nicole concentrated primarily on recently released album Shine On, their Hallelujah moments came when they performed covers of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou“ and Johnny Cash’s “I Shot a Man in Reno.” The Johnny Cash theme would continue when Puss n Boots opened their set with “Home of the Blues” and later played “Cry, Cry, Cry“ and the Rodney Crowell penned “Bull Rider.”
Although she’s the best known member of Puss n Boots, Norah Jones is not its leader. Indeed, she is very much the student as she literally learns how to play lead guitar on the job. Ditto for Dobson, who is learning both drums and guitar while Popper remains in familiar terrain on bass. Puss n Boots is very much a team collaboration highlighted by a gorgeous three-part harmony. All three members took turns in the spotlight with both original compositions and covers. All three had a genuine rapport with themselves and the audience. Much of what they said onstage cannot repeated here, but they were having a good time on stage and we were having a good time with them.
With this in mind, here are a few anecdotes I can share. Before playing “Tarnished Angel,” the Roger Miller composition that George Jones turned into a hit, Jones recalled meeting him and that he joked that they could be related. After singing Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.,” Jones revealed that she was told she had the lyrics wrong by Jeff Tweedy. Jones sang, “Our love is all we gots, honey.” However, the line is actually “Our love is all of God’s money.” Jones felt embarrassed after Tweedy told her, “I like how you changed that lyric.”
Another point of discussion was their legs. Popper, who was apparently nursing some kind of injury, remained seated during most of the show. But when the six foot plus bassist stood up, someone in the audience made reference to the ZZ Top classic “Legs.” Jones recalled that one Halloween she dressed up like Billy Gibbons and used her bathrobe on her guitar to make it look fuzzier. Popper teased playing “Legs,” but instead played the Concrete Blonde classic “Joey.” Truth be told, the legs of all three members of Puss n Boots are a huge selling point for the group. Indeed, they are on prominent display on the album cover of No Fools, No Fun. If ZZ Top were around they would no doubt say, “They’ve got legs and they know how to use them.” Or put another way, if Harry Truman were still with us he would want all three members of Puss n Boots to sit atop his piano.
The banter continued when from behind her drum kit, Dobson said, “We have our first fight.” For a moment, I thought she was talking about a fight within Puss n Boots. But Dobson was referring to an actual fight that had broken out on the mezzanine. As with many of these fights, it was over a beautiful woman. However, by the time Puss n Boots had performed a cover of Doc Watson’s “What Does the Deep Sea Say?“ calm prevailed and the former pugilists were now in perfect harmony. Almost as perfect as when Puss n Boots sang Dobson’s “Sex Degrees of Separation.”
But for me the highlight of the show was, of course, “Down by the River” with Jones on both lead vocal and guitar. Jones is very modest about her guitar playing skills and said that the biggest applause she gets for it is when she messes up a note. She added that her mistakes lose their charm if she does it more than three times during a gig. While Jones will never be mistaken for Eric Clapton, she absolutely rocks on “Down By The River.” It is little wonder that it has been released as their first single. So yes, Norah Jones is now golden in my book.
Puss n Boots ended the evening by bringing Dwight & Nicole back on stage with them to perform Kris Kristofferson’s “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams (Kiss My Ass)” with some of their own lyrics added. Although it was late the evening ended too soon. I can only hope their collaboration won’t end anytime soon. Puss n Boots took me over the rainbow and took me away down by the river and I don’t want go back anytime soon.