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Although some of the greatest groups in popular music history began this way, performing as a “warm-up” act invites dismissal, impatience and sometimes even downright derision. Such was the case with the Durham Performing Arts Center’s (DPAC) presentation of Norah Jones – at least they clearly stated the artists and performance times on their website. Elvis Perkins, son of the original Psycho star Anthony Perkins, performed what seemed like an interminable 40-minute set to a noticeably bored and increasingly annoyed audience. With just a guitar and harmonica necklace, Perkins’ musical style and lyrics was more suited to a coffeehouse than the enormous DPAC auditorium. He has quite a nice and powerful tenor voice but his guitar accompaniment consisted primarily of the same rhythmic strumming of the same or similar chord progressions. That would have been tolerable but for the pretentiousness of most of the sophomore-year lyrics of his songs, most of which went so far over the heads of the audience that some just started screaming “we want Norah!” This was not quite the fan base for a Bob Dylan wannabee: many simply scurried out to wait for the headliner in the lobby, with some (most regrettably the guy seated right behind me) dropping big bucks at the bar.
Although not totally unheard of, it is rare for the first album release of an unknown artist to climb to the top of the charts. Norah Jones’ 2002 CD Come Away with Me did just that, and her seemingly overnight success seemed to only grow exponentially from then on. That freshman release was a subdued, soft jazz affair that displayed her prodigious talents learned as a jazz piano major at North Texas State University. Her equally successful sophomore effort, Feels Like Home, showcased her love of country music. Not one to be typecast for one, or even several musical styles, Jones, daughter of legendary Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, continues her evolution with the recent release of The Fall, wherein she assembles a hard rock band, mostly puts aside the piano for the guitar, and turns up the volume.
Are we being toyed with? Is this simply another example of a hugely successful artist giving us the musical finger? Regarding her own description of her recently acquired minimalist guitar skills, Jones responds in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “…I know about 5 chords. I do guitar solos, and they’re hilarious. I just stay on one string.” When the interviewer reasonably responded that “People are paying good money for this!” Jones dismissed this with “Hey, I think it’s good enough!” Really?
The concert was an example of a perfectly orchestrated, coldly mechanized affair. Despite Jones’ meager six-string skills – which she played for about 75% of the show – this was a tight and top-notch band. Stage hands came and went handing off guitars and adjusting stage props, and the obligatory light show permeated the evening. There was very little chatter from the star and titles of songs were not announced. There was a heavy emphasis on selections from The Fall, including several numbers that blatantly rip off (or pays homage to) Johnny Cash and his trademark rhythm.
Most of us came to hear Jones’ distinct smoky alto voice, yet she also showed she can belt it out in higher registers in some great blues numbers. But it was when she finally sat down at the piano and showed her quite effective keyboard chops and earlier songwriting skills that she really connected with the audience. Now I’m all for musicians stretching out and trying new things, but along with that you need to be able to be objective with the results. Most of the concert sounded like just a decent, but unexceptional, rock band playing retreads and going through the motions. The brief, wonderful interludes where Jones returned to her more intimate and soulful self only heightened the sense of an experiment gone wrong.