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Everything Old Is New Again

What do punks the Dropkick Murphys have in common with soulful Norah Jones? More than you think.

Onlookers laughed, but not at the lameness of this obvious lie, this plain bid to deny free water to thirsty people on a scorching day. With chortling, Butt-head-like finality, an onlooker muttered, "Those people are drinking pond water."

"Punk's not like it was 20 years ago," Murphys front man Al Barr recently declared to a Canadian reporter. "It was never supposed to be big, but it is what it is so let's move forward from there and get over it already! The days of watching Wattie from the Exploited pull a tab of acid out of his vomit so he didn't lose it…that's fuckin' punk, but it's not gonna happen. Those people that bitch…just shut up and don't come."

All right, then…

It is likely that few of the close to 3,000 Norah Jones fans at the Hobby Center expected the Dallas-bred chanteuse to sift through her vomitus in search of LSD. They were after a gentler brand of thrills, and Jones delivered them steadily for more than an hour.

Jones's Come Away with Me was like a shot of cool, cool morphine into the bloodstream of an anxious America, and in winning eight Grammys and selling more than seven million CDs, she was even better compensated than a top anesthesiologist for this soothing work of musical mercy.

All the songs on the CD are in the same key and many share similar tempos, but her show was much more of a varied affair. Her stage presence still needs some work -- when she banters, she seems to be talking to herself. Jones had her funniest moment when her band left the stage en masse after one song in the middle of the set. She simply watched them leave and shrugged one shoulder, but then ruined the moment by saying, "Maybe they're going to the bathroom or something." She should have left it alone.

So Jones's stage presence is still minimal, but maybe "minimalistic" is a better word, since she seems to deflect the concept of the show being about her to it being one about her as part of an excellent band. The string wizardry of Kevin Breit and the drumming of Andrew Borger were highlights from the sidemen, and each band member contributed songs to the show. There were also covers of Boudleaux & Felice Bryant's "Sleepless," made famous by the Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons's "Juanita" and in a duet with opener Richard Julian, John Prine's "That's the Way that the World Goes 'Round." They also played almost all of Come Away with Me and a few tunes off the upcoming record, and if Jones's bluesy/ churchified electric piano and the band's funky grooves on these are anything to go by, Jones is seriously into some Donny Hathaway right about now.

Excellent band aside, still the star was Jones herself. Her voice -- flawlessly captured by the Hobby Center's perfect acoustics -- sounds a tad huskier live than it does on record, but it remains an instrument of relaxed beauty, pure, sparkling and yearning. She has a world-weariness beyond her years, one that conveys wisdom rather than shallow hipster cynicism. It's hard to believe she's as much as a decade younger than many of the snarling snot-punks on the Warped Tour.

Back in the day when nicknames like the Velvet Fog and the Godfather of Soul used to hang on our stars more easily, she would have been called the Caramel Magnolia or some such, so languid and sweet is her voice and so scented is it with Dixie perfume. (If -- and this is a horrid thought -- there was ever to be a musical of Gone with the Wind, Jones would be a natural for Scarlett O'Hara.) Writers have compared her to everybody from Billie Holiday to Tori Amos, Nina Simone to Bruce Hornsby, the range of which just goes to show you the foolishness of the whole comparison game. She's the first Norah.

And her fans love her for it, sometimes too much. While thankfully there were no cell-phone interruptions, no Nokias interruptus, as it were, there were a few dorks in the crowd who felt compelled to holler out lame crap. There was the usual toe-curlingly embarrassing "We love you, Norah," and when Jones said she hoped the audience would like one of her new songs, some doofus yelled, "I'm sure we will!" When Julian opined that the audience in New Orleans the night before had been stoned, somebody (and Racket could swear it was the same guy as the other two times) said, "Yeah! I'm sure no one's stoned in Houston!" Stoned on dweeb-weed, maybe. C'mon, if you're gonna be a part of the show, bring your best game.

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