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Pirates, Rickie Lee Jones, Manchester International Festival.

2011 July 13
by Paul Vallely

There has always been something defiant about Rickie Lee Jones. When her debut album, with its jazz-toned hit single ‘Chuck E’s in Love’, won a Grammy in 1979 she rejected suggestions that she emphasise the more commercial aspects of her songwriting. Indeed her second album, Pirates, which chronicled the break-up of her relationship with Tom Waits, proved a howl of anguish. Now, crossing the chasm of cocaine-fuelled psychosis which divided then from now, she is back, defying the years.

A retrospective might seem to go against the grain for the Manchester International Festival which specialises in new work. But this live performance of Pirates, which has been listed as one of the 25 Most Underrated Albums of All Time, was more than an exercise in nostalgia for a cultural moment now long passed.

She performed the songs, along with those from her eponymous first album, in the order she wrote them, beginning somewhat diffidently with ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Weasel and the White Boy’. But with growing confidence she recreated the Runyonesque carnival that was her Seventies finger-snapping bepop, jazz and R&B flavoured Coolsville. She was allusive, impressionistic, cinematic and – as she navigated the darker side of it all – bleak. These are songs Edward Hopper might have written.  Her cast of characters are “all dead now or in prison” but for one golden evening they were back with her, in their prime.

Her voice was light in the years when the cigarillos, drink and drugs were a bohemian indulgence and had not yet taken their toll. Thirty years on it retains that brittle fragility, diamond-hard and yet desperately vulnerable. But if her elfin quality has not been entirely lost with the thickening of her waist she has acquired a vocal depth and knowingness. She still sings like she is half-cut but that belies a control as complete as that of her impressive band of economic synth, precise bass, faultless guitar, cool trumpet and plangent tenor sax.

This is not growing old disgracefully. It is a voice from a dream, elusive yet familiar, transcendent, a messenger from another place. All that junkie whining about the departure of Waits has become a lament for human mortality and the passing of the years. Stunning. And she did it all without breaking her cool.

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