Iconic beatnik rock songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Rickie Lee Jones opened this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival last night playing her cult favorite 1981 Pirates album cover to cove for the first time ever. There are other must-see outdoor festivals in this city – the ongoing slate of shows at Prospect Park Bandshell is particularly enticing – but year after year, this series has plenty of sonic treats for both the cognoscenti and the merely curious. And Damrosch Park grows more and more hospitable as other parts of town go in the opposite direction.
“Pirates is forty-four minutes long,” Jones explained. “We stretched the integrity of the grooves.” What she meant by that was that there’s only so much music you can fit on a side of a vinyl album. Cram the grooves too close together and not is the sound compromised: a bad needle can do twice as much damage. “That was a long time ago,” Jones shrugged.
Her voice is more weathered now, but she still hits the high notes, arguably with more authenticity than she had when she made the record – although by that time she’d already established herself among the indomitable, resolute outsiders who populate her street scenes and wee-hours narratives. What’s most striking about the album is how surprisingly well it holds together despite Jones’ stylistic leapfrogging, from allusive latin grooves, to oldschool 60s soul, hints of gospel and the occasional detour down toward glimmering neoromanticism..
So it made sense that it was basically Steely Dan who backed her on the record. This time out, the seven-piece group behind her punched in when required, otherwise providing a low-key backdrop for Jones’ incisive, emphatic piano. Guitarist Tony Scherr took all of one solo all night on his Gibson SG, an understatedly moody, bluesy couple of bars. Likewise, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, and the group’s multi-reedman, multi-percussionist, bassist and drummer rose together when a chorus or a turnaround would hit a peak.
Jones has switched out her signature coy chirp from forty years ago for a gracefully melismatic approach that shows off how much low-register power she’s gained over the years. She’s aged magnificently well: it would be fair to say that she’s grown into herself. In that context, her late-night cat-and-mouse flirtation scenarios and character studies of the down-but-hardly-out have gained poignancy. The tales on this album include but are hardly limited to a death by police shooting, a pregnancy, lots of moving around, endings and new beginnings and enough banter for two, maybe three Bo Diddley records. At the end, Jones finally emerged from behind the piano, sauntered around the stage, picked up her acoustic guitar and led the band through a tightly dancing, understatedly triumphant take of Traces of the Western Slopes.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tonight at 7 PM at Damrosch Park with a four-act extravaganza from across the latin music spectrum: fiery, dramatic belter Xenia Rubinos, trippy downtempo guy Helado Negro, our own Alynda Segarra aka Hurray For the Riff Raff, and finally fearlessly populist LA folk-punks Las Cafeteras,