As a new summer season dawned on a distinctly chilly Santa Barbara last Friday night, two of this decade’s most revered musicians took to the Bowl’s recently refurbished stage. While Norah Jones’s genteel blend of pop, soul, and country has the songstress sitting pretty as one of contemporary music’s most finely polished jewels, M. Ward is unashamedly a diamond that resides happily in the rough. With Ward making a guest appearance on Jones’s most recent album, Not Too Late, the foundations were laid for this unlikely duo to hit the road together for a summer tour.
As Ward ambled toward center stage with his acoustic guitar to open the proceedings, Jones quietly crept out behind him. There she remained for four songs, including a gorgeous rendition of “Blue Bayou.” But Ward’s finest musical moments of the evening were yet to come as a rousing rendition of “Lullaby + Exile” was quickly succeeded by the equally infectious “Poison Cup.” Having also recently worked with Jenny Lewis and Bright Eyes, it came as no surprise to find another guest vocalist waiting in the wings: Victoria Williams. The chanteuse took the stage to not only enliven Ward’s “Eyes On The Prize,” but also to turn in an invigorating rendition of “I’m Old Fashioned.”
While Ward was enthusiastically received, Jones’s arrival left no doubt about who was the star of the show. By launching her set with the seductive beauty of “Come Away With Me,” she quickly cast those assembled under her musical spell. For the most part, Jones’s mellow blending of musical boundaries made for an evening of alluring songs, but the highlights were undoubtedly the moments when she strayed a little further.
The vaudeville-like delivery of “Sinkin’ Soon” and haunting minimalist execution of “My Dear Country” oozed both grace and vehemence. And when Ward returned to join Jones and her Handsome Band for a blazing rendition of “Creepin’ In,” the night reached a new height. With Ward’s return came the realization that, while polish and refinement in music are certainly virtuous, sometimes it’s the edges of those uncut gems that cut the deepest.