LIVE: Norah Jones / Regina Spektor @ SPAC, 08/01/2022

Almost nobody can be new more than once. Put Norah Jones on that short list, after her country-fried jam-packed SPAC show Monday night.

The seeds of her later experiments were arguably on clear display in Jones’s star-making, Grammy-grabbing 2002 debut “Come Away With Me.” But listeners gravitated mostly to the breathy calm of its cozy chamber jazz-intimate hits; so she went that way, too.

She gradually grew past that calm cool into other styles, with other bands, easing gradually toward country, as if remembering she’d trained in north Texas. She never abandoned (very smooth) jazz entirely – even in a pre-Covid appearance at Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival that showed her ill-at-ease and aloof.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

She eclipsed, erased, surpassed all that Monday at SPAC.

The lighting behind her offered a clue, round fixtures with lenses divided in thirds, like a Mercedes logo. She made Mercedes country – smooth, elegant and restrained but with strategic reserves of power.

Any band with drummer Brian Blade is guaranteed to swing, and Jones’s tasty trio with bassist Chris Morrissey and guitarist-pedal steel player Dan Iead certainly did.

They set up a sparse, slow vamp as she swept onstage to happy cheers and sang center stage in “Just A Little Bit” finishing this relaxed, musing tune at an old-school Rhodes electric piano. 

While Iead took a short electric guitar break in the similarly pensive “Thinking About You” that followed, solos were few, and brief, in her 90 minutes onstage. Jones herself took some of them, at a Yamaha grand piano stage right, or on electric guitar when she returned center stage later. 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

“Sunrise,” her first tune at the Yamaha, the band got country-er. Morrissey played acoustic bass and Iead shifted to pedal steel as Jones charmed with its four-chord Ooo-oo chorus, a pause and coda form with a short stretch-out. In “What Am I To You,” the band opened the feel a bit as Jones worked a short solo. Then Jones invited opener Regina Spector out to duet in Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream,” voices blending nicely in this easy, pedal steel-spiced waltz. “Say No More” flowed on a supple groove punctuated by two Jones piano breaks, then Morrissey harmonized quietly in “This Life.”

Next, Jones shook things up, strapping on an electric guitar (a gaudy vintage Strat) for Tom Waits’s “Long Way Home,” sung and strummed way more country than Waits ever did it. “All a Dream” burst out of a smooth vamp with a big steel solo and even bigger Jones vocal. This was subtly terrific, Iead echoing a dazzling Jones vocal flourish with a perfect steel lick and everybody grooving. 

This seemed to open the door for Jones to play her voice like a wordless instrument in the melancholy “It Hurts to Be Alone,” bridging across staccato band beats on pure grace. As Blade and Morrissey went offstage, Jones and Iead, still at the steel, made a tasty duet of “Travelin’ On.” Then in an all-hands read of “I’m Alive,” Iead contributed a short, lyrical guitar solo. And from that contained, measured ballad, they went big in “It’s a Tragedy” with its repeating lyric, powerful piano and vocal. “Happy Pills” rode a deceptively happy vamp, another breakup song (of many). 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

If her songs comprised an emotional roller-coaster, Jones and band built waves of tempo and dynamic changes within a comfortable, discrete, well…Mercedes restraint.

But when the hits hit late, the mood went way up with her. “Come Away with Me” (reworked imaginatively) and “Don’t Know Why,” an exultant encore, set up the show’s quietest and sweetest moment. Noting the late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia’s birthday was Monday – he’d have been 80 but died of old age at 53 – Jones sang “Ripple” all alone and beautifully, into a happy hush.

She could have sung the whole show that way, but her band added both rhythmic authority and harmonic richness.

By contrast, opener Regina Spektor sang alone; also by contrast, she’s built her career in a slow rise, unlike Jones’s explosive debut near the top of the pops.

Photo by Jim Gilbert

Red-haired, and dressed, the Russian-born Spektor came on like a more extraverted Tori Amos, happily emotive and in firm control of an audience that greeted her with greater warmth than most openers earn. And, if Jones sounded thoroughly American – country, jazz, pop – Spektor sounded European all the way. 

She played piano with authority – but only after she stood center stage tapping the mic for a beat behind “Ain’t No Cover.” Fans greeted her piano intro to “On the Radio” with recognition cheers and clapped to her wordless coda. They welcomed “Eet” the same warm way, after a musical-theater-style “Baby Jesus” with its nervous/skeptical chorus. 

Photo by Jim Gilbert

While the drama of her voice carried the songs’ heat of love and angst, her piano punched above its weight, too – going all Chopin in “Spacetime Fairytale” and powerfully like Rachmaninoff in “Apres Moi.” But the crowd gave its most fervent applause to “Fidelity” with its repeating syncopated “oh”s chorus.

Photo Gallery by Jim Gilbert

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