Norah Jones, Hammersmith Apollo, London

More range, but still too smooth
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Maligned by music snobs, respected (though often grudgingly) by the music press, beloved of her countless fans, Norah Jones has always struggled with a reputation as just another perfectly charming chanteuse: fit for dinner parties, but unworthy of serious consideration. Her latest album, Not Too Late, seemed a conscious attempt to eschew the jazz-country template perfected on her first two collections. Wearing sainted influences like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan on her sleeve risks earning opprobrium rather than admiration from the sceptics; but her accomplished live show suggests she has pulled it off.

Not that this civilised crowd, many of them dressed up like a West End musical audience, contains many doubters. Those prompt enough to arrive for the support set are granted a treat: M Ward's echoing rasp needs only his acoustic guitar as accompaniment, but he has Jones herself as a co-vocalist. These two remarkable voices ought to be recorded together, and Norah's fans should rush out to purchase Ward's latest album Post-War. He plays a magnificent solo instrumental for which he claims the inspiration of John Fahey, a fellow Pacific Northwesterner.

Like Jones, M Ward's songs can feel like relics of a bygone America. The old movie theatre vibe of the Hammersmith Apollo is a good fit.

Jones takes a leaf out of Ward's book for her opening number, a stripped down version of "Come Away With Me", from her Grammy-laden debut, which begins with just her rich vocal and quiet stabs of electric guitar. It's a statement of intent – she's the same, but different; a familiar songwriter taking a more eclectic approach to the material. With songs like 'Wake Me Up', she has hardened the warm, fuzzy edges of her sound. Even tracks from her first album are darker, more predatory here – "I've Got To See You Again" is topped with a tortured, unnerving solo from guitarist Adam Levy.

But at times the skill and professionalism of Jones and her ensemble threaten to smother the show in predictability, and the set begins to sag under the weight of one too many pleasantly undulating jazz-country tunes. Among them are the single "Thinking About You", the least adventurous track on Not Too Late, and "Rosie's Lullaby", which is just a touch too soporific.

But Jones pulls the energy back with the hopeful "Sunrise", and the shifting dynamics of her versatile band hold the interest: one minute they are a trad-country outfit replete with steel guitar, the next, Levy's banjo is accompanied by flute and xylophone. For the Waits-like "Sinkin' Soon", the multi-instrumentalist Daru Oda invokes the spirit of skiffle by banging what looks like a pair of metal serving trays.

Casting off the band for a moment, Jones plays "My Dear Country", her not especially necessary contribution to the political songbook, written after the last US presidential election. "Who knows?" she asks of her Commander in Chief, "maybe he's not deranged..." Her classy playing of a miniature piano gives the melody a sinister nursery-rhyme ring.

For the last third of her set, Jones intersperses her own tracks with the covers she has always executed with such confidence. She channels Dylan for her own "Until The End", and a gloomy, deep string arrangement props up the fantastic "Broken". Meanwhile, the covers include a Dixie Cups song, and "Ocean Of Noise" from the new album by critics' darlings Arcade Fire. Both are country-fied by slide guitar and rolling-train drumming.

M Ward returns to join the band in party mood for Jones's Dolly Parton collaboration, "Creepin' In". For her last pair of songs, she picks first a Tom Waits cover, "The Long Way Home" and then bows to audience requests for her most dinner-party-friendly composition, "Don't Know Why". It seems to fit the thrust of the evening: Jones's eclectic influences balanced with her populist, comforting crowd-pleasers. She may appeal to the masses, but she also has more to offer musically than her reputation – and the music snobs – suggest.