One of the least trumpeted of the Manchester International Festival’s shows, there were plenty of empty seats at the Bridgewater Hall, but Rickie Lee Jones must be well used to being underappreciated. 30 years on from the release of her masterpiece second album Pirates, she’s not exactly a household name and hasn’t had a hit single since 1979, nor has the kind of universal critical adoration that some of her contemporaries have. But if any of that bothers her, there was no sign last night.
Jones has enjoyed something of a career revival over the last eight years, since the release of the acclaimed Evening Of My Best Day, but this show focused entirely on her first two albums. Doing performances where you play albums in their entirety is extremely popular these days (Snoop Dogg will be doing so later this week as part of the Festival), but she does it slightly differently, apparently a development she has introduced since the tour started.
Rather than playing the songs from Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates in the order they appear on the albums (which would be what you’d expect), she plays them in the order that she wrote them. Of course, it still pretty much means that it’s one album after the other, but it adds a more autobiographical feel to the night, with Jones introducing each song with a brief (mostly) description of where she was and what she was doing when she wrote them.
This works especially well with these songs, because both of her first albums are so evocative of her life as a musician starting out in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. With a talented band bringing the music to life (including a brass section), the full majesty of her songwriting is evident, and the most obvious comparison for those unfamiliar with it would be to compare her songs to those by Bruce Springsteen on The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle, full of characters, imagery and flavours.
Kicking off with Easy Money, Jones is in fine voice throughout, with her voice swerving between the kind of sassy saloon-singer sound that epitomises her for many people (the voice she uses on Chuck E’s In Love, basically) and a more powerful and soulful voice that comes out on the piano-led ballads like the breathtaking Skeletons and We Belong Together (apparently about her break-up with Tom Waits). The mixture of intimate songs and boisterous lengthy party tracks like Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking makes for an evening that never gets dull.
Her approach to playing these albums out of strict sequence means that it’s a much more loose and free-flowing affair than some similar ‘album gigs’ that I’ve been to, which suits Jones’s style of music and performance perfectly. She even ends up playing a sort of encore at the end after realising that she’d missed a couple of tracks on the run-through, and despite the haphazard nature, it was still a perfect finale. The Bridgewater Hall might not have been full, but this was still another triumph for the Festival, bringing a unique talent to the city for her only UK performance on this special tour.