18 Apr 2004: Pop: She has that smouldering voice, but Norah Jones is some way off setting the place on fire, says Amy Raphael
Norah JonesThe Point, Dublin
There is a charming story about Norah Jones which gives a lot away about her awkward relationship with being a star. When her debut album, Come Away With Me, had sold two million copies, she phoned the president of her record label, Blue Note, and pleaded: ‘How can we stop it?’
The album went on to sell 18 million copies worldwide and there was little Jones could do to slow such phenomenal sales down.
So, whether she likes it or not, the 25-year-old is now one of the most successful artists of her generation. Yet she is a reluctant superstar, one who hid her five Grammys in her wardrobe after she cleaned up at the presti gious American awards ceremony in February 2003, who hangs around Greenwich Village in New York in downbeat clothes, big hats and glasses. And, one who – despite having show business in her blood thanks to her father, the legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar – finds the studio and not the stage her natural habitat.
Tonight is Norah Jones’s first proper gig since August last year, and with a new album, Feels Like Home, to promote, she faces a long period on the road. Now that success dictates she can no longer perform her soothing, jazz-tinged songs in intimate, smoky clubs around downtown New York, Jones is painfully aware that she has to put on a show.
And so tonight she appears on stage in Dublin, one of Europe’s first cities to impose a smoking ban, with a nervous giggle and the tiniest of waves. The walk across the stage to her piano seems to take forever and it is some time before her musicians, the so-called Handsome Band, take their positions. ‘We weren’t trying to be dramatic,’ squeaks Jones. ‘We were just in the bathroom or something… OK, I was trying to be dramatic.’ The largely middle-aged audience obligingly laugh and clap.
Jones continues the banter all evening, even though it’s apparent she would rather just get on with the songs. There are self-deprecating jokes about her outfit (an off-the-shoulder black top, flowing burgundy skirt and high black shoes which adeptly mask her tiny stature) and the fact that she actually leaves the comfort of her piano to perform some songs.
‘This is the first time I’ve ever worn a skirt on stage. I’m so excited. I don’t like to expose anything when I sit at the piano…’ and ‘This is the first time I’ve actually stood up to sing at a gig. I’ve been watching my Beyoncé videos.’ Of course Jones knows only too well that she is anything but Beyoncé; she has none of the innate sparkle and sexuality, none of the fluid stage moves.
What she does have is a voice. And what a voice it proves to be. From the very first song, a cover of Hank Williams’s ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ from Come Away With Me, her voice is glorious, simmering in its dreaminess and often evocative of hot, sticky days. On ‘Toes’, from Feels Like Home, she transports her audience from an old Dublin warehouse to long, secluded grasses by a cool stream. Yet somehow the voice is not quite enough.
Somehow, in front of 6,000 very appreciative but pretty motionless fans – there is noticeably little toe tapping, never mind swaying – the suggestive, late-night, post-coital feel of so many of Jones’s song is replaced by an unexpected innocence. Even on her first hit, ‘Don’t Know Why’, with its not-so-subtle refrain of ‘I don’t know why I didn’t come/I feel as empty as a drum’, the sultry sexuality is somehow lost.
Norah Jones herself has described her first album as ‘a little too mellow’ and although she excels at jazz-lite, she seems unable to take her songs to a different level in a live setting; in a show almost two hours long, she failed to increase the tempo, to send shivers down the spine with her more melancholic tracks (surely she should have done this with her cover of the Tom Waits song, ‘The Long Way Home?’) or to really get the audience going.
Of course this is a tough transition, from small, dark club to cavernous, impersonal venue, but it is one that Jones must make. The Handsome Band – including her boyfriend of four years, Lee Alexander, on bass – are all gifted musicians, but perhaps their very muso-ness stops Jones from really getting to the heart of the songs. It is sometimes a case of too much art, not enough heart.
The moments to be savoured are those when most of the Handsome Band retreat – ‘Carnival Town’ is just Jones on piano, her old friend Daru Oda Daru on backing vocals and a gently plucked acoustic guitar; with its lazy double bass and low-key piano, ‘Those Sweet Words’ is a perfect Sunday afternoon song – and the finale.
Here, finally, after almost two hours and over 20 songs, Jones relaxes a little. She has already chosen the evening’s cover versions well, in the form of the Everly Brothers’ ‘Sleepless Nights’ and Gram Parsons’s ‘She’, and she finishes the encore with a surprise. ‘Do you like AC/DC? You think I’m kidding?’ Asks the small woman with the big voice. ‘I’m Norah Jones and I’m so mellow?’
She starts laughing to herself as the band launch into a bluesy version of ‘Ride On’. She has more attitude than before, more composure and confidence: perhaps the first-night nerves have been controlled. But even as she stalks the stage in her flowing skirt and high heels, Norah Jones oozes mellow. The girl can’t help it.
· Norah Jones plays Manchester Carling Apollo (Sun), Newcastle City Hall (Mon), Nottingham Royal Centre (Tue)