Country Jones

Grammy-winner Norah Jones and friends head down the road as the Little Willies

May 01, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The two can't say the name without giggling. Folksy pop-jazz singer-pianist Norah Jones and her longtime boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander, crack up like middle school kids when asked about their band name: The Little Willies.

"Anytime somebody asks about it, we're like, `Do we have to say the whole name?'" says Jones, who's calling from her New York home. "It brings a smile to people's faces when they say the name."

On the conference call from Maine, where he's playing a gig later, Alexander chimes in: "We did it all in fun."

The couple and three of their musician friends -- guitarist Jim Campilongo, guitarist-vocalist Richard Julian and drummer Dan Rieser -- make up the group, which was named in honor of their musical hero: country legend Willie Nelson.

It's a side project, a covers band that came together three years ago at the Living Room, a small club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although in that time Jones became a multimillion-selling, eight-time Grammy-winning international star, the quintet still played together when schedules permitted. And now the friends have made their casual side project available commercially on an album simply called The Little Willies.

Released in March on the band's Milking Bull Records, which is distributed by Jones' parent label, EMI, the CD is being supported with a low-key string of national dates.

"It's our big world tour: four dates," Jones says with a chuckle.

One of the stops is at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis tonight. The show is sold out.

"We were worried about how what we did in the group would transfer on record," Jones says. "It started on the stage. It was just something loose and fun."

It was out of practical reasons that the group came together in the first place: The Little Willies needed a place to jam. In 2003, the band, all individually involved in other projects at the time, booked a gig at the Living Room as an excuse to spend an evening playing covers together. Although they hail from different parts of the country -- Delaware, Texas, Massachusetts, California -- the members shared a love for the music of Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and, of course, Nelson.

"It became fun to have this outlet for all of us," says Jones, whose last solo effort was 2004's multi-platinum Feels Like Home. "It's a lot looser and a lot more fun for me -- not that my records aren't fun to do. But there was a lot more at stake after the first record, and there was pressure that I really didn't want to deal with. With the band, there was no pressure. It was, `Let's just enjoy it.'"

Over the past three years, the Little Willies have played at the Living Room whenever all five were in town. In addition to the country covers, the members added originals to the set. The group thought about recording a live album to personally document the easygoing music they made together. But when Jones and Alexander, who share a place in New York, completed work on their home studio, the band decided to christen the room with a Little Willies session.

"We recorded the album in about 2 1/2 days, just banged it out real quick," Alexander says.

"It was the first time we got the band really rehearsed." Jones adds: "Not too rehearsed, though. We still wanted it to be a little sloppy."

Soon after the sessions were over, the band decided to form its own label and put the album out. Though charming at times, the laid-back, 13-song set is a mixed bag. Mink-voiced Jones shares some leads with Julian, whose thin vocals don't always meld with hers. But the two get it right on the cutesy "Roly Poly," which opens the CD. Campilongo's fluid, lightning-quick guitar licks also stand out.

Ironically, the Nelson covers are the album's weakest moments. "I Gotta Get Drunk" feels forced, and Jones' interpretation of the great, soulful tale, "Night Life," lacks emotional resonance. But on the four originals, the band sounds more at ease -- so much so that things get a little loopy at the end of the record. The closing number, "Lou Reed," is an inside-joke of a song about the ex-Velvet Underground leader cow-tipping in Texas.

"Richard and I started writing that tune on our way back from Texas," Alexander says. "After about nine hours of driving, you get a little silly, so we came up with this idea of Lou Reed in Texas on this cow-tipping spree. When we got back to New York, Norah kind of added a silly bridge."

Has the rock legend heard the goofy "tribute"?

"Don't know if Lou Reed has heard the song," Jones says between giggles.

"We haven't heard," Alexander says. "No news is good news, I guess."

And the two crack up.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

NORAH JONES

2002--Norah Jones' debut, Come Away With Me, braids subtle jazz aesthetics with folk-pop sensibilities and sells 18 million copies worldwide. The album nets the native Texan five Grammys in one night.

2003--As an outlet, Jones, bassist Lee Alexander, singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Julian, drummer Dan Rieser and guitarist Jim Campilongo form the Little Willies, a covers band that performs at the Living Room in Manhattan whenever all five are in town.

2004--Jones releases her second album for Blue Notes Records, Feels Like Home. Shaded with country (a direct influence of her involvement with the Little Willies), the CD features guest appearances by Dolly Parton and Levon Helm. It's certified platinum five times.

2006--The Little Willies releases its self-titled debut.

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