When Norah Jones last visited Red Butte Garden, shortly after her debut album Come Away With Me had made the young artist a multi-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum sensation, I found myself horizontal in the grass of Salt Lake City’s best summer concert venue, staring at the stars and zoning out. Jones’ sound at the time was good, but rather mellow and not my taste.
Jones’ sold-out show at the same venue Tuesday night showed just how much she has grown as an artist, musically and as a live performer. As she’s evolved from the jazzy piano-pop stylings of her first album to find a more experimental edge working with producer DangerMouse on her latest release, Little Broken Hearts, her live performances have evolved from simple, relatively staid affairs to big productions, complete with light show and a backing band capable of delving into all the styles Jones has tackled in the years since her breakthrough, from traditional honky-tonk to straightforward pop to that familiar blues and jazz-fueled songwriting that made her a star.
Tuesday night, Jones started with three straight new songs: “Turn Me On,” “Out on the Road” and the title track “Little Broken Hearts.” She followed with an unexpected treat, a cover of Tom Waits’ “The Long Way Home,” causing a bit of deja vu among those of us on hand for Diana Krall’s show at Red Butte Garden a couple weeks back, when Krall covered more than one Waits tune.
“Say Goodbye,” another new song, showcased Jones’ swanky side as she sat at an electric piano, leading her band through its paces. I never thought I’d see Jones bring some funk to her sound, but that song did it (albeit subtle funk, if there is such a thing). Even more from Little Broken Hearts came fast and furious, including “Take It Back” and “All A Dream,” before Jones lit into one of her most popular covers, a bluesy shuffle through Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.”
With lights flashing into the audience and large origami cranes dangling overhead, Jones killed a version of “Happy Pills,” the first single from Little Broken Hearts, before winding out the show with a heavy dose of songs from Come Away With Me. “The Nearness of You” was one of the night’s highlights, as was its follow-up “Miriam” from the new album. “Chasing Pirates” and “Lonestar,” a song she’s performed with fellow Texan Willie Nelson on occasion, ended the main set.
The encore was manna for Jones fans, with the singer settling in with her band around one microphone, strumming an acoustic guitar she said she bought in Salt Lake City. “Sunrise,” “Creepin’ In” and “Come Away With Me” made for a winning closing burst of a show full of unexpected treats.
That first time I saw Jones perform at Red Butte Garden, I had her pegged as a musical comet, burning at the moment but probably not lasting very long. After Wednesday night’s show, I’ve changed my mind. It’s easy to see, and hear, how Jones could become another Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams–a performer with roots in Americana and the vocal chops to delve into any style she wants for years to come.
I can definitely say this: Next time around, I’ll be there to see Jones with high expectations, rather than simply a curious mind. She’s made it clear, through her adventurous recordings and increasingly dynamic performances, that exceeding expectations is something she has no problem doing.