March 21, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
When Norah Jones sat down to play piano, people whooped. No big surprise — after all, in 2003 the subdued mood she and it created on a debut album raked in multiple Grammy awards, sold millions of copies and ensured placement on Starbucks counters until the Columbian bean fields run dry. Like all mass successes, a franchise was born, which resulted in two follow-up albums over a subsequent three-year run.
Except this time, for this tour, for this album, Jones did not get to the piano right away. The whooping for the old reliables had to wait until eight songs into her sold-out show at the Chicago Theatre. Before that moment, a new, and evolved singer stepped onstage: She strapped on a guitar and before long, melted into a new band of stylists who presented songs that involved textures and grooves more layered and deeper than she had ever tried before.
For Jones, this is a fortuitous move. The sound of her languorous piano ballads and countrified roots pop from her previous albums never really filled up the large concert halls dictated by her sales figures but instead sounded more at home in the small jazz clubs she never could play.
She didn’t need to compromise on this tour, thanks to a new five-member band of veteran stylists like drummer Joey Waronker and guitarist Smokey Hormel whose shared resume includes pivotal roles in albums and tours with the likes of Beck, R.E.M. and the Smashing Pumpkins. Unlike Jones’ previous band, which on any night could have been mistaken for a graduate school glee club, this new outfit of professionals had little time for cute: theirs was a talent for finding nuance in each song even if it meant drilling down into its deepest core.
The first third of this 21-song show was dedicated to new songs from “The Fall” (EMI/Blue Note), Jones’ latest album. For these she played the unfamiliar role of side guitarist, playing rhythm to Hormel’s unpredictable leads.
His silvery guitar playing was the engine behind the staccato pop of “Chasing Pirates” and spongy funk of “It’s Gonna Be.” The new songs had further to go than her early ones — and they were a lot more fun. Neon pink lights lit up the stage for “Even Though,” a kind of New Wave revival, all fizzy and punched up with synthesizers.
Along with a first-rate selections of covers — Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart,” Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home” and the Kinks’ “Strangers” — she tipped her hat to hometown heroes Wilco with her version of “Jesus, etc.” With Jones playing lead guitar in just a trio, the song was less anxious than its original version, maybe because — she admitted afterwards — she discovered she was prone to switching a lyric from one that was oblique to what her ear heard: one that was more upbeat.
After 90 minutes Jones and her band returned to play acoustically and a requisite stand around a single microphone. After a handsome version of “Come Away With Me,” the title of her first album, they turned to “Stuck,” another new one that couldn’t have been any different. Backed by a rumble beat, the song built slowly, switching between swampy blues to rock breakouts. “I just hit a wall/had a little fall/felt the swinging wrecking ball,” she sang and the band followed suit.