In the early 2000’s, I had two occasions to attend South by Southwest, the music conferences that takes place in—and takes over—Austin every year. I was on a panel one year, then did an onstage interview with The Band’s Robbie Robertson a year or two later.
Each, year, I learned , there was one major “buzz act,” the one band or musician everybody had to see. I had great timing. The first time I went, it was Shelby Lynne. The next: Norah Jones.
SXSW artists played anywhere and everywhere. I caught Norah at a barbeque restaurant one afternoon and at a Tower Records gig. Wherever she played, listeners were mesmerized. I met her briefly after one event, and there was no question that she’d turn the buzz into a blast of a career. Her first album sold 4 million copies.
But if she was having a blast, it didn’t show on stage—at least early on. She never failed to sing and play piano beautifully. But she was always at the grand piano, sideways to the audience, often looking down or straight at her band as she sang her wistful, jazz-tinged songs.
This was not the real Norah, who enjoyed hanging out, jamming, and doing after-hour gigs with her Willie Nelson tribute band, the Little Willies.
The more real Norah is in Norah Jones and the Handsome Band Live in 2004. What a difference a few years make. Now, she is often front and center, singing at a mike. For her audience at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, she brings on several guests, including Dolly Parton, who puts a charge into the proceedings, mentioning Minnie Pearl and June Carter Cash before joining Norah on “Creepin.’”
The producers also include a behind-the-scenes look and listen to Jones and her very handsome band, with a video of them performing “What Am I to You” in an empty auditorium. There’s also footage of a rehearsal or sound check for “The Prettiest Thing.”
And although Jones & Company are playing the home of the Grand Ole Opry, she’s not afraid to offer a solo rendition of a Duke Ellington song, “Don’t Miss You at All,” showing her chops as a jazz-tinged torch singer and as a pianist with a soft, deft touch.
And then she’s rejoined by the band for a countrifried version of Tom Waits’ “The Long Way Home.”
And then it’s hello, Dolly.
Whether it was at a BBQ place in Austin or the mother church of country music, Norah Jones always knew how to please a crowd.