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POP MUSIC REVIEW

In the spirit, but not quite gospel

March 03, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Since the Jesus Freak era (circa 1970), contemporary versions of the Gospels have become nearly as common as Christian rock songs. "Good News for Modern Man," "The Living Bible," "The Word," "The Message": All fulfill a need, as old as the King James version itself, to make Christianity's central text appeal to disengaged ears. This mission has also inspired pop artists including Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and U2, all of whom have incorporated biblical material into their lyrics. But no one would have guessed that Rickie Lee Jones would take on this task.

Jones, who performed Thursday at the Music Box at Henry Fonda Theater, is best known for her moving accounts of the shadow life of bohemia. Her early songs made her the Ntozake Shange of white girls, an open-eyed romantic unafraid to air the demimonde's dirty secrets, but faithful to its dreamy ideals. Thursday, Jones performed several of those older songs at the piano, culminating in the heart-shattering blues "Coolsville." On these melodically tortuous songs, Jones showed her signature to be intact -- a cutting cry as daring and emotionally intense as anything heard in punk or heavy metal.

Smiling her way out of catharsis, Jones strapped on a white electric guitar and led her band into material from her new album, "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard." Her band, a talented and loose bunch that included Jones' old pal Lee Cantelon on backing vocals, guitarists Peter Atanasoff and Paul "Junior" Garrison, and the excellent bassist Jose Mari Maramba, hung together valiantly as Jones led them through jammy, epic new songs such as "Nobody Knows My Name" -- spiritual meditations that have led Jones to make some of the most inspired rock 'n' roll of her life.

It all started in 2005 when Cantelon, a writer and photographer, decided to set his contemporary (and minimalist) take on the Gospels, "The Words," to music. "Nobody" emerged as an improvisation during the first session for that project. Cantelon and Atanasoff had hoped Jones would simply read a passage of Cantelon's book while they played; instead, she made up her own wild sermon, imagining Christ morphing into a bird, the rain, a stranger on the street, unnoticed by centuries' worth of passersby. Her intuitive performance inspired a powerhouse drone-based riff from Atanasoff, and Jones became a heretical Christian rocker.

The rest of "Sermon" flowed from that first encounter, and her live performance re-created that spontaneous mood. The new songs used the holy clatter of guitars and percussion -- and, of course, Jones' amazingly ductile voice -- to invoke mystical longing and, sometimes, bliss. Some, including the catchy ode to sweet temptation "Circle in the Sand," were neat pop numbers; others, e.g., the spooky "Tried to Be a Man," rambled like Pentecostal outbursts. Jones always sought to express that moment when everyday life becomes profound -- the same connection that made the pirate love songs of her youth so powerful.

Jones threw a few old songs out to the avid crowd; a subdued take on "Last Chance Texaco" felt rote, but "Ghostyhead" came alive in a new arrangement. She ended with "I Was There," an account of spiritual union that places Jesus on Santa Monica Boulevard in a white dress shirt, chatting with the pimps and the bartenders. "It's difficult to see who you are," Jones sang of the Christ, but in fact, she saw him perfectly. And she offered him up to everyone in the room.

ann.powers@latimes.com

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