Together we pushed through a gradually drunkening mass of anticipatory over-50s, all jocund and overpriced beer and premonitions of the soft-sung night to come. Under the gaze of a scrutinizing usher, he groped around in his clothes looking for our two tickets, which with a broad smile he produced, wrinkled and smudged from a short life spent at the bottom of a crammed pants’ pocket. Stubs deemed satisfactory, a brusque sweep of an arm pointed us up the stairs and into the boondocks of the State Theatre’s balcony. When his eyes fell on our seats, a coy look of apprehension washed over his face, which I quickly did my best to dispel by saying that, in my opinion, the best way to see Norah Jones perform is from far off and above, with the ability to melt back into your seat and, eyes closed, feel the night’s velvet slink around you without any expectation of or desire for one of those coveted, meaningless little glances from the performer that those in rows closer to the front are wont to crave.
As the night proceeded, though, I came to realize that there’s one more criterion for having an enjoyable experience in seeing Ms. Jones perform: to be, while in the midst of her love-stained caresses, in a state of utter platonism. Because, if I had had anyone but a good friend sitting next to me while she lilted on, in her ineluctable smoothness and suavity, about loves lost and loves found and loves kindled and loves burning out, my mind might have dolefully drifted off into the State’s aether to commingle with Norah’s jazzsmoke breath which, with every cabaret note or pluck of country twang, floated upwards to rest, almost tangibly, just beneath the theatre’s muraled ceiling in hazy andamento. But instead of all that lovelorn garbage, I had with me on Saturday night a friend with whom I had to worry about doing nothing more than absorbing the music of a veritable legend in muzak history.
Jones, as it turned out, was actually the audience’s reward for enduring the blandest opening act which any mess of oversexed millennial Brooklynites with a taste for “indie rock” could conceivably conceive: Alberta Cross. The band hails from across the pond, but has been residing in Brooklyn for the past seven years, presumably for the purpose of honing their craft. And honed their craft was: Whoever writes their songs has an overwhelming knack for moulding vapid clusters of overused words into no less vapid lines of metered cliches, and they played their instruments with the whittled competence of people who have been playing their instruments in Brooklyn for seven years. Lead singer Petter Stackee delivered tepid truncations of what might have been mediocre lyrics, but were in fact too mumbled and gurgled in the name of Sounding Cool to speak about with any definition. Leaning over his armrest in between songs, my friend aptly whispered, “They sound like the music that plays in the background of a drama movie when having music doesn’t really fit the vibe, but silence would be too weird.”
Unfortunately, their set lasted a grueling six songs. Fortunately, the soundcheck was short, and before long the lights dimmed and the State erupted. An unassuming Jones, clad in a flowing, gossamer, leopard-print dress took the stage with her band — a guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboardist whom she’d go on to intermittently introduce throughout the night. With little more than a brief hello — she’d prove by the end of her set to be endearingly softspoken — she and her cohorts slipped into their first song, a track which, admittedly, I didn’t know and I don’t remember. But, that’s beside the point, because Jones’s performance would prove to be not one defined by lugubrious stretches of deep cuts and newer material interspersed amidst the hits everyone’s waiting for. Instead, she avoided this trap which performers in her same boat — that is, those who have a low huge-hits to rest-of-their-catalogue ratio — usually fall into, and imbued in every one of her songs (not only “Don’t Know Why”) a sultry import which proved, at least to me, that she is and has always been more than just a sweet crooner with a pretty piano and nothing to say; even if what she has to say has already been uttered to infinity by others more articulate, it’s still something I desperately want to listen to. And listen I did on Saturday night.
The captivation, however, wasn’t just incited by Jones. For one thing, her band was remarkably adept. Regardless of the sonic environment required by Jones’s arrangements or lyrics, the men behind her knew how to match the feeling. Shifting with uncommon ease from spryness to ghostliness to precision to absence (they gave Norah a few songs to herself and her piano), they followed Jones wherever she might take them, but it never seemed like they were being led. They were at their best when they had the chance to show off, the most remarkable instance of which occurred when guitarist Jason Roberts plunged into a solo which wouldn’t have been out of place at a hard rock show, nor, strangely, did it seem at all out of place at all during Jones’s set.
But in the end what Norah’s band did was lend a backbone to her music, which, in its own unpretentious way, is ultimately as sweet and innocuously affecting as holding hands or receiving a gift for no reason. For me, this fact made itself clearest near the beginning of her set, during a song which, in fact, wasn’t even her own. “If you don’t mind,” she began to say as she stood up from the piano and positioned an acoustic guitar strap around her neck, “we’re going to play a Jerry song. My band turned me on to the Grateful Dead, and I hope all of you like them as much as I do now.” And with that she began a simple strum, common to as many country laments as have ever been written with a half-broken heart. But with Norah Jones and her band up on stage, flooded in red light and summoning from their instruments and her throat some of the most starkly meaningful sounds that’ve ever been played for me, this surely wasn’t a lament. If the smile which complemented my heavying eyelids and back-tilting head was reflective of what Jones was doing on stage (and I for one think it must have been), then this instead was a celebration. Of what, I don’t know, but a celebration nevertheless; one to be best enjoyed with a friend to your left, someone else entirely consuming your brain and a twinkle of utter contentedness flowing straight from the stage to the very back of the State Theatre and into every fibre of my body. “It Must Have Been the Roses” was the prime example of Jones’s ability to make, if even for a moment, every sad thing seem okay and every bittersweet thing seem entirely happy. If the ability to muster such a sweeping effect is one way in which a performance can be judged, then Norah Jones’s show at the State was an absolute success.