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Jones brings conviction to Sanders with 'Sermon'

Rickie Lee Jones is touring in support of her latest disc, released earlier this month. Rickie Lee Jones is touring in support of her latest disc, released earlier this month.

CAMBRIDGE -- She was right there in front of us, flesh and blood and long blond locks, and yet somehow from the moment she materialized behind a piano to conjure the "sad-eyed Sinatras" of "Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)," Rickie Lee Jones seemed spectral, a hazy apparition of Patti Smith's hippie kid sister.

Perhaps the illusion had to do with Jones's tea-cozy shaped "Alice in Wonderland"-evoking pinafore, her blissfully drowsy countenance, or that peculiar, precocious voice that throbbed with both child like wonder and bruised wisdom, dreaming and remembering at once. Dreams and memories: Saturday night's set before a sold-out crowd seated in pews inside the handsome old environs of Sanders Theatre was about both.

Jones, who had not played Sanders in nearly 15 years, is touring in support of her latest disc, "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard." The idea for the album, released this month, was inspired by "The Words," a book based on Christ's teachings written by her friend, author-musician Lee Cantelon (who occasionally joined in on various percussion instruments at Sanders when he wasn't watching the proceedings from a perch at the rear of the stage).

Musically speaking, "Sermon" is a noir-ish universe of spooky, swirling grooves cut with minimalist, diamond-hard riffs that recall the Velvet Underground, reined in by Jones's street-poetry meditations and lamentations on faith, doubt, and the state of the world. It's also the 52-year-old singer-songwriter's best work in years, and she knows it.

Rather than sprinkle a nostalgia-heavy set of old favorites with the obligatory smattering of new material, as many veteran performers past their prime are wont to do, Jones -- an adventurous artist who always seems to strive for a new prime not yet realized -- opted for the inverse. Yes, she hearkened back with sly, blissfully slur-voiced affection to her early boho/beatnik Americana portraits: "Living It Up"; the early Springsteen-isms of "The Last Chance Texaco" ; the wistful recollections of "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963." But most deeply and deliberately, Jones immersed herself inside the more recent spiritual preoccupations of "Sermons," and it was that material -- especially the louder, harder-rocking numbers -- that shone brightest.

Flanked by an endlessly inventive band that was a shape-shifting combo of guitars, bass, drums, and the occasional accordion -- it ranged between three and six members at any given time -- Jones laid down a thick, knotty, insistent groove that brought tough, soulful selections like "Nobody Knows My Name" to strutting life and infused "Tried to Be a Man" with streetwise menace.

When she strapped on an electric guitar, the result was magic. The glittering half-sung, half-spoken rap that sent "I Was There" shooting toward the stars capped a performance that was by turns earth-bound and ethereal , much like Jones herself. "And we were blessed, yes we are," Jones testified, the rest of her band by now having exited from the stage, save for guitarist Peter Atanasoff , who stood conjuring beside her. "You tell them I was there, man. I was there."