TRICKY RICKIE: Thirty years after she exploded onto the scene with her self-titled album, Rickie Lee Jones returns with a fresh batch of wonders.
Keeping Up With Jones
Rickie Lee Jones comes to Santa Cruz for a Valentine's Day lovefest
By Richard von Busack
RICKIE LEE JONES was a wanderer from Chicago who stayed for a while in Venice, an island of intelligence surrounded by Los Angeles County. Shockingly, her first self-titled album—considering the degraded taste of the time—became a hit. Jones was easy on the eyes, like Joni Mitchell, and she had the same accessorizing cig and beret. Rolling Stone and Saturday Night Live jumped on her. Just as Boss Reagan brought back the '50s, Jones brought back the beatnik girl.
Her big hit "Chuck E's in Love" is what I would call inoffensive, with a big influence of Laura Nyro; a safe hit entombed in sluggish Varithaned saxophones. What I had ears for was more peppery: the raunchy 12-bar blues about L.A. pubcrawling and hash-house harrowing titled "Danny's All-Star Joint." That tune starts the Venice flashbacks as if I'd just had shock therapy: Brandywine Café, Fox Venice, etc. The lyrics alone to "Weasel and the White Boys" show why Jones was Beatnik Jeckle to Tom Waits' Beatnik Heckle. The two had some kind of painful love affair, and the crazy Dionysianness suggests the pathways to some troubled times.
Coming to town this week, Jones brings tunes from her new album Balm in Gilead. The mature Jones is now very much back to the land; the CD's made of accordions and dobro, a little gurgle of synthesized didgeridoo and gospel organ, and of course the biblical reference to healing. We see a suite of photos of weathered doors, a peacock and a pitbull, sandaled feet and the hood of a '50s jalopy. We learn elsewhere that Jones has been doing her gardening up in USDA Zone 5. Balm in Gilead is sweetly dedicated "for my daughter and my daughter," with some maternal advice in "Wild Girl" ("What makes you beautiful doesn't come out of a jar").
"The Moon is Made of Gold" is like something beautiful you'd hear on a 78 rpm record. Guests on the album include Ben Harper, Alison Krauss and the late Vic Chestnutt. But this isn't violently retro: here is the hum and throb of modern production, spoken-sung lyrics dubbed over the lilting vocals as in today's R&B. Balm in Gilead reminds you of what made Jones a star in the first place: not the beret, the coolness or the tease, but the ever-young voice, a streety softspoken sound, rich with alluring lisp and loneliness.
RICKIE LEE JONES plays Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8pm at the Rio Theater, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28 advance/$32 door, available at Streetlight Records and www.pulseproductions.net.
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