- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

M. Ward got things off to a mellow start on Monday night at DAR Constitution Hall. While strumming his guitar and tickling the ivories, the smoky-voiced crooner serenaded the sold-out room; yet as his delicate compositions fanned out from the stage, they were unable to tame the dull hum of conversations buzzing through the audience.

Clearly, most of the mature, well-heeled concertgoers had come to see the headliner: Norah Jones and her four-piece Handsome Band. From the moment a shocking white beam illuminated the 28-year-old chanteuse from above — her dark tresses spilling across a flirty knee-length red dress and her hands clutching a red electric guitar — it was her night in the spotlight.

She opened her set by inviting guests to “Come Away With Me” (the title track from her 2002 multiple Grammy Award-winning debut), and they happily complied, following her as she led them through the vast territory she has covered on her three records and beyond, into the land of artists who have inspired her, including Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt.

Unlike her heavily jazz-flavored first offering, her latest two albums — 2004’s “Feels Like Home” and 2006’s “Not Too Late” — have showcased a folkier, more eclectic sound, and she seemed to have chosen her set list with the goal of displaying her musical range.

While sticking with more traditional interpretations of some songs, she and her band often opted for stylistic variations. For the classic “I’ve Got to See You Again,” they laid into a thick jazz groove that conjured images of a smoky New York City club. On the fresher “Sinkin’ Soon,” her thudding piano playing, the plunking upright bass and her throaty growl kicked the inherent cabaret vibe into high gear, evoking visions of Fosse-style dancers straddling chairs.

Miss Jones cooed easily on her sophomore album’s biggest hit, “Sunrise,” and cast “The Sun Doesn’t Like You” (from “Not Too Late”) in a sinister light, with purple fog looming overhead.

Proving that she’s more than a mere vocalist (and a gifted one at that) the performer skittered among a grand piano, a keyboard and several guitars. (Like Madonna, she has only recently learned how to play the instrument.) Sometimes she appeared onstage alone, as in her playful rendition of “Election Day,” on which, without the rhythmic confines of percussion, she was free to use shifting tempos to change the emphasis.

Though the audience was well-traveled by the end of a nearly 1-hour set, the voyage had a few uncomfortable passages. Early in the show, for example, the accordion that backed “Those Sweet Words” was overpowering and jarring. Conversely, when M. Ward returned to the stage for the lively bluegrass-flavored “Creepin’ In,” his soft vocals and acoustic guitar got swallowed by the sea of sound. (He’s no D. Parton, who appears on the album version.)

The show’s pacing also came in spurts, which isn’t entirely surprising given the diversity of material the artist was attempting to present.

When Miss Jones spoke, however, she reminded everyone just how youthful she is — “That concludes the creepier portion of our set,” she explained at one point — and, somehow, all seemed forgiven.

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