It wasn't exactly Mott the Hoople glam-rock mixed with urban-jazzy Black Power horns, and it wasn't a vaudeville show with jugglers and other attractions -- two ideas that the headliner has been tossing around -- but Rickie Lee Jones' show on Monday at the Echoplex delivered on its promise of something special.
This was the first of Jones' four Monday night concerts at the Echo Park club, and while many of L.A.'s small music rooms, most prominently Spaceland, the Fold and the Hotel Cafe, have monthlong residencies on their agendas, it's rare to see one by a veteran artist of Jones' stature.
The 350 or so fans who occupied the folding chairs on the club's floor Monday got the unexpected that you'd expect under the circumstances: an intimate setting, some rarely aired material, a lot of improvisation and experimenting by Jones and her band, and an approach informal enough to allow her affectionate pit bull Julietta to join her on stage and mingle with the audience.
Jones' most recent album came out a year ago, so she wasn't out promoting a record, nor was she conducting a focus-group test of new material. She was just playing because, well, that's what she does.
"It's all I'm meant to do. I don't know what to do with myself when I'm not working," Jones, 53, said Sunday, taking a break at a coffeehouse near her Hollywood home during an afternoon rehearsal.
"It's a hard kind of work, but it's so fulfilling. Without it I take a lot of walks and eat a lot of ice cream and watch TV all day long, waiting to stop watching TV and sing songs again. . . . I just know there's this joy that's not in my life unless I'm singing."
A residency near home was the ideal way to do that. Jones can claim an illustrious history, starting with her left-field hit "Chuck E.'s in Love" when she was a boho ingenue on the L.A. scene back in the late '70s.
Her subsequent creative period established her as one of pop music's most compelling and original singer-songwriters.
But she was a headstrong visionary, so there were some ups and downs, and even a four-year hiatus early in this decade. But she mounted a creative resurgence in 2003 with the angry, political "The Evening of My Best Day," and last year's ecstatic, religion-themed meditation, "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard," was among the most acclaimed works of her career.
All it took was some poor management and some canceled shows in Europe a few years ago, Jones said, to put her in a financial hole. She had to sell half of her music publishing to help with the debt, and last year she was forced to give up her small horse ranch in Agoura.
"To be honest, the bottom line is that I've got to make a living, and this provides a wonderful clarity," she said. "If you have too much money and too much success, you get a little encumbered by too much thinking. I think you've got to keep needing that check, and if you need that check, I think you'll serve the music really well."
And if it's cost-prohibitive to hit the road with a band, there's always a room like the Echoplex just down the 101 from home.
It took a while for things to warm up at Monday's opening. Jones started with three songs at the piano -- "Stranger's Car," "Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)" and "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963," feeling her way into the shape of the evening.
She then stood up and played guitar on the bluesy "Lap Dog," which evoked her old mentor Tom Waits. "The Albatross" was a concert rarity, but things really kicked into gear with "Ugly Man," a scathing critique of President Bush that tapped the audience's energy on primary election day eve.
From there, Jones and the audience seemed in full sync, savoring the immediacy and the looseness as she gave her six musicians impromptu instructions or improvised an of-the-moment pastiche.
But whatever happened, don't count on it happening again.
"I have this idea of doing something different every night that I play," Jones said Sunday. "I'd like to do 'West Side Story,' some or all of it, so maybe the last show. . . . Maybe next week or the week after have guests. Maybe one night will be more jazz. I've never performed all of 'The Magazine.' . . .
"And this will segue into this idea I've had for a while to do a one-woman play. Tell a story, sing a song. It's a different kind of format," she said. "Or maybe I'll take a chance one of the nights and put a chair up there and see what happens.
"I like being up there right now, it's a really good time. . . . How lucky I am that people come out. It's been a hard career. I haven't had a lot of support with videos and things like that. But I still sell tickets and I like what I do more than ever."
Rickie Lee Jones
Where: Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Monday, also Feb. 18 and Feb. 25
Price: $20 to 25
Contact: (213) 413-8200