I’ve always found it interesting how we’re drawn to what type of music. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve shared life experience with the singer, or can even understand their language to be drawn in and then either like, or even love, someone’s music. I’m not sure why I have always loved Rickie Lee Jones’s music, her completely unusual voice, and her folk tales of bar hounds and outlaw kids, but she was one of those women I worshipped in university. Funny, it’s a stereotype of gay men being drawn to women singers: Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, and Kylie Minogue. But gay fans of folksingers were a little less common; I loved Jane Siberry, Ani Difranco, Nanci Griffith and Joni Mitchell just the same.
Two years ago, I saw Rickie Lee Jones in Sydney as part of the Vivid Festival, playing to a packed house at the Opera House. Our seats weren’t particularly good, I recall, but I was thrilled to hear her play her old songs. She was whackier than I imagined, a musician’s life, well lived. My partner, however ,thought she sounded a little worn out with a lack-lustre performance.
On Sunday night, my friend David posted on facebook, ‘Does anyone want to see Rickie Lee with me?” I had no idea she was in town, and I subscribe to a number of music and concert e-mail newsletter so I won’t miss my favourite artists when they pass through. I’d seen nothing of it advertised, heard not a peep.
But of course I’d go. And neither would David find anyone else interested, the majority of Australian friends knowing Ricki-Lee Coulter, a former Australian idol contestant, but not Rickie-Lee Jones.
The venue, in Marrickville, is out of the way. There is a nice enough bar a seven-minute walk away, and a pizza place across from that, but it’s pretty dead out there. I’d been to the Factory Theatre ages ago, and I couldn’t quite picture here there. It’s small, and not very pretty. The size of a small high school gymnasium, a big boxy long room.
We arrived early, had a drink and headed in. There was no opening act. We kept on looking at these rows of stackable chairs lined up and joined together, no more than 200 people, and the back rows empty. What happened? How does a world-famous artist end up playing in a dive like this? The lights dimmed, she came on stage with two musicians, a cellist and an electric guitarist.
From her opening notes, I was astonished that even near the back of the room, we were sitting so close to her. The sound was crystal clear, as if she were singing in one’s living room, and her voice, unchanged after so many years. And while the tour is purportedly in support of her new album (which I hear is very good), it was mostly old favourites, her on guitar mainly, though she switched to piano, significantly for Satellites, an amazing jazzy improvisational version. We Belong Together was stripped down, the percussion of the original tracks recreated by tapping and clacking on the top of the piano, or the musicians tapping their instruments. These songs were the most intimate and stripped-down versions I’d heard. Coolsville was quiet, quiet and absolutely cool. ‘It must be love’ was sweet and quiet.
In the meantime, Miss Ricki Lee was low-key with an easy banter with the audience, not very talkative, but cool, of course. Instead of the feeling that she was tired of playing these songs for decades, she completely inhabited them as being able to sing them like no one else could ever do. She would smile and laugh during singing, relishing her own poetry and the joy of her delivery.
Someone’s posted up the setlist already (from setlist.fm)