It was a long barren winter without attending any concerts, so I emerged from hibernation and saw three shows in ten days. It was Geezerpalooza – Mark Farner, John Mayall, and Rickie Lee Jones (sorry Miss Rickie). They were all at my second home, the Variety Playhouse. More importantly (for my wallet) I did not buy a single concert T-shirt, which is a groundbreaking phenomenon in my life. I have a real problem passing by those T-shirt tables. It’s a disorder without a name.
I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Alvin Lee decades ago. He said I’m Going Home is not what Ten Years After is all about. The same probably holds true for Rickie Lee Jones and Chuck E’s In Love, although I’ve never read it or heard her say it. The point is that a big hit can catapult an artist into stardom, but end up defining them. Defining something can be a death sentence, or at least a life sentence in a very small cell. So I walked into this show hoping that Chuck E wasn’t even on the set list. If you’re curious, that song title came from Tom Waits telling Rickie why their friend Chuck E. Weiss left L.A. She liked the sound of that phrase. So now you know.
Some refer to RLJ as a confessional songwriter, whatever that is. She did sing a song about priests in this show, but I believe it was a different kind of confessional. Let’s just say she is a musician with many influences. Her vocal style is all over the place, from sensual whispers to Ginsberg howls. She’s a poet, a blues jazz singer, and a beatnik complete with finger snaps. She doesn’t rap but is an accomplished performer of beat-influenced spoken word. Her diverse background provided her with lyrical imagery. Born in Chicago, she soaked in culture like a sponge from Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, SoCal, and now NOLA.
Rickie’s road was long and winding. During this show she told the story of the first time she was recorded at age fifteen. It was her playing the piano and singing Nights In White Satin, and she sounded like little Michael Jackson (her words). She had been playing original material around L.A. clubs when she got her first break. She had written a song called Easy Money which Lowell George of Little Feat used on his solo release. That was recorded in 1978 shortly before his untimely death.
Things took off for RLJ in 1979 with her debut album. It included guest appearances by Dr. John, Randy Newman, and Michael McDonald. That release eventually peaked at #3. Rickie was a virtual unknown when she was booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. After that she was big news, gracing the cover of Time. They called her the Duchess of Coolsville (which became the title of her 2005 anthology). Then came a world tour and the cover of Rolling Stone. That RS cover had RLJ in a white beret and black bra, and it became the biggest selling issue in the history of RS up to that time. Sadly coincident, that issue also included the obit for Lowell George.
What followed for Rickie over the years included two Grammys, fifteen studio releases, an anthology and assorted live albums and EPs. She collaborated with Tom Waits, Walter Becker, The Blue Nile, Don Was, and Ben Harper to name only a few. Her latest offering, “The Other Side of Desire” features the first original music she has recorded in over a decade. Rickie now lives on the street made famous by Tennessee Williams. The album title is a nod to that author’s most famous work. Rickie told us she likes Southern life and how people call her Miss Rickie – familiar, but respectful. She also likes how people look her in the eye and speak as they pass on the sidewalk, in contrast to life in L.A. The new album is hauntingly familiar, but full of experimentation and creative juices influenced by her new life in the Big Easy.
There was no opening act. Rickie came on stage at 8:15 to a very warm greeting from the audience. Her first words were “This place needs new carpet. I think my father walked on this carpet”. Older, but still a bad-ass. The crowd loved it. RLJ fits in well with the boho vibe of Little Five Points.
Set List – one hour forty five minutes, no encore :
Weasel and the White Boys Cool, It Must Be Love, Satellites, Rebel Rebel, The Altar Boy, The Last Chance Texaco, Blinded by the Hunt, Jimmy Choos, The Moon is Made of Gold, Living It Up, Pirates, The Horses, Coolsville, Christmas in New Orleans, Scary Chinese Movie, Sympathy for the Devil, Love is Gonna Bring Us Back Alive, Chuck E’s In Love.
Rickie was on guitar for the first nine tunes, then to the piano for the next five (where she broke a nail), then back to guitar for the final four. Throughout the show Angela LeBeau provided stunning vocal harmonies and played a variety of instruments including guitar, violin and percussion. Rickie still has the voice of a siren drawing us toward her with every note until we crash into the rocks with her gravelly snarls. This was all too clear when she covered Sympathy for the Devil. After performing it, she told us this is NOT a nice song and should be sung accordingly without jolly whoop-whoops in the background. Another cover, Rebel Rebel, was a tribute to the recently departed David Bowie which she explained is a song about the dubious behavior of men. Then she introduced the next song as more dubious behaviors of men in The Altar Boy, referenced by me earlier as a song about priests.
There were no encores. RLJ introduced the last song as “something she’s never done before” and asked us to “be very quiet”. She then performed Chuck E’s In Love sitting over the edge of the stage, totally unplugged. This venue is small enough that it actually worked.
If a singer’s lyrics can bring you to tears, that’s powerful. If her songs make you want to dance and laugh, that’s powerful too. Rickie Lee Jones can do both.
Until the next concert, it’s time for my boot heels to be wanderin’.