Madeleine Peyroux commanded the Arlington Theatre stage Friday night, March 17, with the done-him-wrong (and gonna-do-it-again) sass of a certified Big Mama blues belter. But when she opened her mouth, what came out was something between a whisper and a caress. Peyroux, famously, sounds a whole lot like Billie Holiday. Such debt notwithstanding, Peyroux sings with a delicacy, precision, and originality all her own.
Sashaying through the Great American Playbook, she, bassist Barak Mori, and guitarist Jon Herington — impeccably tight, tasty, and complementary — quietly chomped on Tom Waits’s “Tango Till They’re Sore,” Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Shout, Sister, Shout!,” with an emotionally charged understatement and quiet swing that alternated from playful to excruciating. What she did with “Danny Boy” — shamrock-shaking national anthem of the American Irish — was grimly haunting and utterly new. The Pogues, even in the darkest stupor, would have been proud. Peyroux, who, like Holiday, is endowed with a very small voice, vowed to sing exclusively about “booze, blues, and love.” She veered off topic a few times, however, to shake a fist at Donald Trump, opening up with a defiantly playful “(Getting Some) Fun Out of Life.”
Peyroux, a New Orleans native, was followed onstage by Rickie Lee Jones, who transplanted herself a few years ago to the Crescent City, where, Jones remarked with considerable relief and pleasure, people make a point to say hello as they pass by on the street. Like Peyroux’s, Jones’s voice — with its signature leaps from midrange to high — calls to mind other artists, most obviously Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. But Jones has carved out her own musical niche, one part vocalist, two parts street poet. Over the years, Jones would emerge as high priestess for those whose careening urgency defied paint-between-the-lines treatment. As slouching mercurial diva, Jones has been impossibly prickly over the years, refusing at one time to continue performing at the Santa Barbara Bowl until Bowl security escorted an offending concertgoer—who made the mistake of getting up mid-song—off the premises. None of that was in evidence at the Arlington, as she graced the audience with certified crowd-pleasers such as “Chuck E’s in Love.”
Her band — a percussionist and lead guitar — was more sonically sprawling than Peyroux’s, but their gaseous vapors congealed a lot less. On occasion, it all came together wonderfully. A lot of the time, it just swirled. Jones and Peyroux collaborated for one duet, trading lyrics and licks, on “As Time Goes By,” the old chestnut immortalized in the film Casablanca. There was no encore after that. Anything else would have been superfluous.