By Nate Chinen
Published: April 2, 2008
â€śIâ€™ve never played solo here, ever,â€ť Norah Jones said just after midnight Monday on the Lower East Side, surveying a capacity crowd with a flicker of a smile. â€śMuch less on guitar,â€ť she added, fiddling with the strap of her cherry-red Fender Mustang. â€śBut I figured in the spirit of the Living Room, Iâ€™d try something new.â€ť
Ms. Jones, the not-so-secret guest on a show celebrating the Living Roomâ€™s 10th anniversary, was appearing in the company of friends. Among them were the singer-songwriters Jesse Harris, Richard Julian and Sasha Dobson, whose separate sets involved generous overlap in personnel and style. So in addition to commemorating the first decade of a club beloved by many â€” as an incubator of talent, the Living Room can suggest a much mellower and tidier successor to CBGB â€” the evening cast warm light on the close-knit family of folk singers that still counts Ms. Jones as one of its own.
With so many collaborators on hand, her solo set didnâ€™t last long. She sang â€śCold, Cold Heart,â€ť the Hank Williams standard, along with an impish new original about her dog. Then she welcomed Ms. Dobson for a couple of duets before calling up the Little Willies, her frisky five-piece vintage-country band, which features Mr. Julian.
Much of their effervescent set recalled the Little Williesâ€™ self- titled debut album, released in 2006. Singing in close but casual harmony, Ms. Jones and Mr. Julian tucked into lighthearted songs by Jimmy Driftwood, Kris Kristofferson and the bandâ€™s namesake, Willie Nelson. The mood was jaunty, with Ms. Jones at an upright piano and Jim Campilongo playing suitably twangy electric guitar.
In one standout moment, Ms. Jones presented an unpublished Hank Williams song, with his lyrics set to her melody. Its substance was classic Hank (opening line: â€śTime after time youâ€™ve proven untrueâ€ť), and its country-waltz setting was easeful and fine, a natural showcase for Ms. Jones and her gently aerated, coolly intimate style.
Just as satisfying, on the other end of the dynamic spectrum, was Loretta Lynnâ€™s â€śFist City.â€ť Itâ€™s not the sort of song anyone would immediately associate with Ms. Jones â€” a threat of violence, shot through with feisty humor â€” which is what made it such a delight. Projecting with a bell-like tone, she sounded gutsy and tough, almost scarily self-assured.
Mr. Julian had exuded a cagier brand of confidence in his own set, backed by a three-piece band. His songs were terse and often wry, with frequent New York City allusions. And he sang two of the only remotely political songs of the evening, though his topics, religious hypocrisy and rampant capitalism, preserved a nonspecific air.
In Ms. Dobsonâ€™s set, urbane jazz chords met with a likably unfussy style. She welcomed Ms. Jones on background vocals for one near-calypso and elsewhere paired off winningly with Mr. Julian. Her sharp band included Mr. Harris on banjo and Tony Scherr on electric guitar, and she featured them well.
Mr. Harris, who also played banjo throughout his set, observed that it marked a reunion of the Ferdinandos, an old Living Room staple. Along with Mr. Scherr, the bassist Tim Luntzel and the drummer Dan Rieser, he delivered a strong batch of old and new songs. His voice was reedy, bordering on a whine, but his presence was quietly charismatic.
And his originals, among the best of the evening, whisked the set along. Mr. Harris is another of this sceneâ€™s successes, having written â€śDonâ€™t Know Why,â€ť the sleeper hit that introduced Ms. Jones. But he wasnâ€™t afraid to knock the songs around. Twice he ventured something the band had never touched before. He did this, he said, â€śin the spirit of the Living Room.â€ť Both times, the results were impressive.
Anniversary performances continue through Friday at the Living Room, 154 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side; (212) 533-7237, livingroomny.com.
photo by Rahav Segev