The Rock’s Backpages Rave: Rickie Lee Jones at the Royal Festival Hall

Barney Hoskyns

Rob Steen and I share the conviction that Rickie Lee Jones' 1981 sophomore album Pirates is one of the greatest records ever made; her debut wasn't too shabby either. Rob watched Jones perform both of them last week in London, then penned this impassioned encomium——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

First, a health warning: if you are prone to cringe, foam or rage at reviews that put emotion first and last, and make no attempt whatsoever at objective appraisal, look away now.

Allmans at Knebworth and Todd in Victoria/Joni and Paulie and Townshend at Wembley/Bruce at the NEC, Beach Boys in ol' DC/These are a few of my favourite things./Laura in Islington, Stipey at Dingwalls/Man at the Roundhouse, Squeeze at the Rainbow/Earl's Court hosting the divine Bobby Z/They're a few more of my favourite things...

There ain't 'arf been some lucky bastards, as Ian Dury almost put it, and I'm the first to confess I've been a luckier bastard than most. With the exception of Miles Davis in 1959, the Doors in 1968 and Santana in 1973, I've seen every act I ever wanted to see at the very height of their powers.

Then, last month, I had the privilege to watch Todd Rundgren rummage through his back pages at the Jazz Café in Camden Town, and left utterly convinced I had just experienced the most resplendent, inspiring, pop-that-in-your-bong-and-smoke-it-forever performance I am ever likely to savour this side of paradise. Nostalgia, naturally, was part of the trip, but because the oldies span so many years and styles and the better newies have done nothing to taint the legacy, it was less about wistfulness than celebration. The odds against having one's soul stirred even more vigorously just six weeks later would cheer Mr Ladbrokes no end. But then Rickie Lee Jones, like Todd, never has had much time for tales of the expected.

To the converted, last Saturday's show at the Royal Festival Hall was unmissable: in keeping with current trends, Rickie would perform her first two albums in their entirety, the second, Pirates, for the very first time. Not for a nanosecond was the significance of this lost on disciples.

Rickie Lee Jones was a record of collisions — between jazz and pop, cool and fragile, Broadway and Bowery, red-blooded raunch and blue-mooded introspection. The more subdued, musically expansive Pirates was a valediction to her relationship with Tom Waits — bruised, scarred and worldly-wise yet romantic and wide-eyed and grudge-less; as rich in vocal texture and instrumental ideas as it was in dynamic and tonal and emotional contrast. You could be glib and describe it as a fusion of Joni, Laura and Carole with a dash of Lady Day, but the boys had snuck in too, above all Bruce's horns and horny Johnnys. Hell, she even managed to persuade Dancin' Donny Fagen to tickle the keys. Sadly, recent interviews suggested that, even after more than three decades, the pain that fuelled the beauty still festered.

Happily, if deceptively, the early going found us in the company of brassy, sassy Rickie: 'Danny's All-Star Joint' and 'Youngblood', both from that eponymous debut, and 'Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking' were beboppingly sharp and fizzingly infectious. Fingers snapped, knees swayed; Rickie jived; even my sombre bum began to twitch.

As early as the second song, however, it became clear, somewhat surprisingly, that the albums would be mix-and-matched rather than presented as distinct entities. Surprising, because it turned the running order from a piece of cake into a butter mountain: vast, treacherous and impossible to conquer without the aid of a pair of Hovis skis. Then again, the girl in the beret never did do fear.

Kicking off with the upbeat stuff was the obvious and sensible gambit, but from there on in it must have been a pig to decide what should come when. Interweaving sweet and bittersweet is never easy, but somehow Rickie pulled it off. Yet as if to make a mockery of such attention to detail, a technical hitch with her guitar caused a lengthy delay, prompting an apparent touch of spontaneity — a rousing rendition of that timeless Lerner and Loewe nugget 'On The Street Where You Live'. The bounce, zest and sheer unrestrained joy of this scat-like interpretation flowed like soothing water on beach-burned feet. For these eyes at least, the rest was tears.

Whether it is the personal memories they invoke — of a bad breakup shortly after Pirates was released — or simply empathy for the author, I know of no other record that contains so many songs so adept in the art of melting the heart. Crying in public has never been my bag, but that trusty stiff upper lip had made its excuses and left. To be frank, as 'We Belong Together', 'Pirates' and 'Living It Up' took turns to press my vulnerable buttons, the connection with the singer was tangible, at times close to umbilical. Then there was 'Lucky Guy'. Girlfriend may have beaten boyfriend into the charts but here was a somewhat envious nod to the source of those enduring sores:

Oh, he's a lucky guy/I wish I was like him./Cuz when he talks about me/He don't look this way...

For all the stately grandeur of her accompanying piano, to hear her sing those plaintive words was to relive, intimately, every rejection there ever was, or ever could be.

Towards the end of the night, in the uncertain, vulnerable, little-girl-lost voice that masks the inner iron, Rickie told us how wary she'd been beforehand, scared even. Who could blame her? Then again, she's patently tougher than the boys. I can't imagine Bob Dylan taking Blood On The Tracks back on the road, or Bruce Springsteen revisiting Tunnel of Love. Then again, perhaps they've been luckier in love. In The Times, Dave Sinclair called Rickie's performance an "exorcism"; it felt much more gruelling than that.

By the time she made that disarming if ultimately unsurprising confession, she seemed utterly drained, making it all the more astonishing that she dug even deeper for 'Last Chance Texaco', the first-album standout and a song liable to give goosebumps to even the hardiest Eskimo. Strewn with namechecks for oil companies, it could easily be cited as the greatest product placement in recorded history. That it made the writer not a bean seems only too apt for such a singular and uncompromising artist.

So thank you, Rickie, for a night that will stay with me beyond the 12th of Never. Now the exorcism is over, I trust, may romance bloom soon.