TSB Bank Arena; Wellington
Wednesday, April 24
Listening to a Norah Jones album and attending a Norah Jones concert…they used to be a very similar experience. I know this because I saw Jones on her first two tours of New Zealand. Back then she was shy and the demure, deer-in-headlights thing was a further selling point for the thousands that had lapped up her polite dinner jazz-marketed albums (well there was a wee flirtation with country on the second, but that was allowed, the troops were still happy).
I appreciated the voice – loved some of the songs and the players were all class of course but those first two tours turned me off somewhat.
Jones won me back with her studio efforts. A restless musical soul, pigeonholed by her record-buyers as being this fey chanteuse – but she was out there doing punk on the side under a blonde wig, making a country band in honour of Willie Nelson, covering Dolly and Tom Petty and collaborating with Danger Mouse and Dave Grohl and even Mike Patton. She was doing all sorts of work. And it paid off in all sorts of ways. And now I would get to hear the Norah Jones I wanted to hear.
New album Begin Again – actually just a set of seven singles grouped together but quite possibly her best and boldest musical statement to date – was my clue that it would absolutely be worth seeing Norah Jones again. This is her first time in Wellington in over a decade. Since that second tour.
And there was a lot to be pleased about – including, and this is odd given the venue, a wonderful live sound mix. That voice as clear as a bell, husky tones only when added by the singer, such warmth, huge heart and now with the funky backbeat of drummer Josh Adams (a player that moved through sticks, brushes, even his own bare hands on the kit) Jones has an extra grit to her sound. The polish will never fade but there’s something going on here now, a level of gumption that I couldn’t detect on the first three albums. It arrived with The Fall – it’s been in place for the decade that’s followed.
But I had the feeling, watching Jones do soul-scorched torch-balladry (It Was You) and sending her voice out to the rafters (My Heart Is Full) that many in the audience just wanted to hear Come Away With Me in full. They’re waiting, it seems, for some anniversary tour, for the hope that Jones will play it in its entirety, since it’s never really left their stereo at home you see.
Actually, she was generous with a selection from that album – including the title tune tweaked to feature Jones on the guitar. There was also Nightingale, the Hank Williams cover Cold, Cold Heart (better now than ever – more lived-in, less of a party-trick than it seemed to me at the time) and, yes, the big, big hits. We got Don’t Know Why and the happy sweetness of Sunrise from sophomore record, Feels Like Home.
But I saw lots of people leaving. Heading for the aisles because, presumably, Don’t Know Why, didn’t come quick enough or Come Away With Me wasn’t played four times…
Actually what was happening on stage was a wonderful conversation between the musicians, steel guitars and gospel swells of organ, warm upright bass, country and jazz guitar licks and Jones moving from acoustic and electric guitars herself to, most prominently, the piano.
The new songs were stunning. The old songs have grown on me. Far more than I thought might be the case.
It was note-perfect, but never without adventure. Somehow Jones is both faithful to the song yet still exploring.
But the people next to me tut-tutted at anything that wasn’t from the debut album. And after 80 minutes many were flustered as they flicked at their wrist-watch, poking and prodding at buttons in-disbelief. Probably sending tweets of frustration to wherever for whatever reason.
If they’d just done the work, listened then, and/or listened at home to anything else beyond the first three albums, they’d have heard an artist that’s managed – somehow – to escape the system whilst still having the benefit of having arrived in its final moments of support.
I was blown away by Norah Jones in 2019. Something I couldn’t say in 2003. And 2005. But something I’ve known – for sure – since at least 2009. She’s all class.
Her audience on the night in Wellington though? Hmm…jury’s out on that one.
And comedian Melanie Bracewell as the opening act? That was, like her cringe-worthy set, weird, and presumably a joke.
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