Despite the multiplatinum sales she has racked up over the past few years, Norah Jones remains doggedly devoted to the tiny Gotham clubs where she cut her teeth, popping in for surprise shows as either a guest or a solo performer. More recently, she put together the Little Willies, a loose-knit combo designed to let her get in touch with her inner roadhouse mama via old-school country and blues covers.
The Willies have flown under the radar until this fundraiser for local public radio station WFUV. And while it was their first advertised gig, the unveiling was staged with a minimum of fuss — fitting, given that they approach their playing the same way.
Jones, never the most high-maintenance diva out there, seemed intent on positioning herself as just another band member, sharing vocal duties with guitarist Richard Julian and looking happiest when simply tinkling the ivories on, say, a plaintive version of the classic “Streets of Baltimore.”
Affability is arguably the Willies’ biggest selling point. Other acts have done a better job of mining the Nashville-via-Bakersfield canon, not to mention weaving those sounds into their own material. The few originals aired here were light to the point of flying away — although one must give style points for being able to weave Lou Reed into a tale of drunken cow-tipping.
The perf did, however, connect on a holiday-party level, particularly when Jones left her piano bench to playfully shimmy through songs like a cover of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me” — which will appear on the band’s as-yet-untitled recorded debut, slated for release in March.
Fellow Willie Richard Julian delivered a short set that far outstripped the rest of the evening’s openers. Backed by a group that recalled the Band — thanks in part to a two-keyboard lineup — he spun his words like a man who’s been around the block a number of times, but still manages to linger longingly when he arrives at a corner that holds his most poignant memories.