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with Jesus

By David Werther.

Rickie Lee Jones, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard (New West Records, 2006) ISBN 07396-6108-2

           Last night while I awaited the arrival of my bus, three gentlemen stationed themselves in a nearby courtyard and began singing (with the accompaniment of an accordion), “Have you been washed in the blood of the lamb?" The scene was surreal. It was as if movie stereotypes of nineteenth-century Christians in the American west had suddenly materialized on State Street, a major thoroughfare on the University of Wisconsin campus. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate presentation of the gospel. My bus arrived soon and so I don’t know what the trio chose for their next number, but I would not have been shocked if they had launched into “Shall We Gather at the River?”

           Before leaving for work yesterday I checked my e-mails and clicked on the message from Borders to see what discounts were available this weekend. (I used my 30% off coupon to purchase volume III of the collected letters of C.S. Lewis). Along with the usual advertisements for DVDs and books there was a link for a concert and interview with Rickie Lee Jones filmed at the Borders store in Ann Arbor. Jones was performing work from her latest release, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.

           The lyrics are inspired by the words of Jesus, and “inspired” is the operative word. Jones does not tell us if the streets of heaven are paved with gold, but she does sing about riding in “my Elvis Cadillac,” and tells us that “Little Janis Joplin, she’s got a job on the corner bar,” which prompts her to add, “So I guess we‘re doing alright.”

           On The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard Jones sounds more like a shaman than a rock star. She whispers, moans, sighs, and sings to music that might be called punk folk and punk pop. All of the songs carry conviction. I believe her when she says, “I was there when Jesus walked,” despite her admonition in the same song to “Take my advice and throw it away.”

           Jones’ “sermon” is inspired by Lee Cantelon’s collection of the words of Jesus. Cantelon envisioned a spoken word recording and asked Jones to be a reader. She opted to improvise and sing instead. In a CD full of strong material, “Where I Like it Best” is the best, a first-take improvisation on prayer in which Jones expresses an exhausted desperation to be in God’s presence.

           I expect that the trio with the accordion would not know what to make of Jones’ music. And, I suspect that some of the folks who ignored the trio (insofar as it is possible to ignore an accordion) would be bewildered as well. But, I bet if Jones were singing on State Street, people would stop to listen and wonder, and, when she sang “You’re coming into town on a donkey and going out on a cross,” some of them just might have believed.

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