Sometimes the best does get saved for last. After a 15-song set at ACL Live that mostly found her seated at the grand piano, Norah Jones returned with an acoustic guitar for an encore in which her band gathered around a single microphone at the lip of the stage. “If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine,” she began, as her bandmates joined in softly and sweetly on an unforgettable rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.”
This was Jones’ fourth time taping an episode of “Austin City Limits,” following appearances in 2002, 2007 and 2012. She’s almost a perfect artist for the longest-running music television show: an enchantingly distinctive singer, a gracefully tasteful musician and bandleader, a impeccable songwriter and interpreter, a multimillion-selling major artist, and a native Texan to boot.
Most of Sunday’s performance naturally focused on her latest album, “Day Breaks,” another high point in a 15-year career that has seen very few lows. Jones played nine of the album’s 12 songs, opening with the title track and closing with four of its best tunes (including the singles “Flipside” and “Carry On”). She acknowledged her 2002 Grammy-sweeping debut “Come Away With Me” with a couple of numbers, and sprinkled in a few more from other records along the way.
The “Day Breaks” material centered on Jones originals written with co-producer Sarah Oda and keyboardist Pete Remm, who played organ for most of Sunday’s set. But she made a point of also including the album’s three covers. If Neil Young’s too-straightforward “Don’t Be Denied” paled in comparison to the zen-like spells Jones and her band cast for most of the night, the other two interpretations were splendid. Horace Silver’s easygoing “Peace” made the spacious theater feel like an intimate jazz club. And Duke Ellington’s “Fluerette Africaine,” performed as a duo with saxophonist Jacob Duncan, might have been the most beautiful moment of the night before the encore.
Another duo rendition proved similarly exquisite, if with a different mood and coloring. Pedal steel guitarist Dan Iead joined her for “Humble Me,” a standout on 2004’s “Feels Like Home” album. Jones’ core band of Remm, bassist Greg Wieczorek, drummer Josh Lattanzi and guitarist Jason Roberts stood out throughout the set mostly for their careful restraint, allowing the songs’ musicality and Jones’ vocals to shine. That said, they stepped up the tempo when needed: Jones donned an electric guitar for the playfully raucous “Don’t Know What It Means” from her 2014 side-project album with the alt-country trio Puss N Boots, and Roberts finally let some sparks fly near the end of the set on “Flipside.”
Right after that song finished, Jones had her one rough moment of the night, when a small but noticeable group of attendees got up and left just before her set concluded. “Really?” she asked, almost more puzzled than peeved. But she didn’t let it affect the music, closing with the gorgeous, subtly anthemic “Carry On” and then returning for that splendid encore. For those who left early, it was their loss.
Jones stayed in Austin another day to perform a sold-out show at Stubb’s on Monday night.
PHOTOS: A-List gallery of Norah Jones at Stubb’s
ACL taping set list:
I’ve Got To See You Again
Something Is Calling You
Don’t Be Denied
Don’t Know What It Means