Review: Peyroux displays the stuff of legend during Britt show

If you're going to sound like somebody it might as well be Billie Holiday, and if you're going to cover other artists' stuff, it may as well be stuff by Leonard Cohen, W.C. Handy and Hank Williams.

Each summer there's a sleeper show at Britt. It's a show that comes in beneath the noise machine but winds up getting talked about at parties the following winter. Last year it was Jamie Cullum. This year it's Madeleine Peyroux.

Peyroux (pronounced pey-ROO), a smokey-voiced singer from Athens, Ga., by way of Southern California, New York City and Paris, is nudging legend status about as much you can as a jazz singer at the relatively tender age of 33.

That's in part because of her chops and unmistakable voice, and in part because she shows up occasionally to make a killer album and then seems to disappear for years.

Saturday in Jacksonville Peyroux and her four-piece band ambled on stage after a nice but unremarkable opening set by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and began the evening with a jazzy version of Leonard Cohen's "Blue Alert." When Peyroux sings a line like "you try to look away, you try," you believe it's is serious stuff.

Most of the early part of the set was softly swinging, with Peyroux standards such as "Don't Wait Too Long" and a slow, idiosyncratic (ugly word but required in talking about Peyroux) take on Fred Neil's classic "Everybody's Talkin'."

Peyroux is often accused (or complimented) of sounding like Billie Holiday, and there is an undeniable thing in the voice. And there's Peyroux's tendency to sing between the beats, and go off the melody. But her phrasings are her own. Sometimes they even carve out new spaces even in an old chestnut like "Everybody's Talkin'," while at other times the singer takes things so far down as to become almost soporific.

But just when you think the show could use some energy along comes a number like "A Little Bit," which was the first tune that rocked, featuring tasteful guitar work by Shane Theroit.

Peyroux's gently loping treatment of "Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night" will remind you of neither Tom Waits nor Jerry Jeff Walker, but it has its charm. "Half a Perfect World," from the 2006 album of the same name, had an almost Latin feel. "I'm All Right," which the singer introduced as her happy break-up song, was delivered in a sassy, brassy groove to the up-tempo side of the version on the CD.

Peyroux's repertoire is as extraordinary as her voice. Eclectic, wide-ranging, reflective of a singular background. Peyroux was a street busker in Europe while still in her teens, performing tunes by Fats Waller and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1990s.

Her first album, 1996's "Dreamland," was tagged by Time magazine the most exciting vocal performance by a new singer of the year. She responded by making what not exactly a career move — relocating to Paris and rarely performing under her own name. Her second album came out eight years later. Despite the Thomas Pynchon act, it sold more than 1 million copies.

Saturday's show got more soulful as it went, from a heartfelt go at Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" to a weirdly affecting take on Randy Newman's "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today." The latter threatened to fall asleep when pianist Sam Yahel, who did stellar work all night, threw in an incendiary if non-Newmanesque acoustic piano solo.

"Dance Me to the End of Love" was a dramatic ballad that gave the band stretch-out room and set up the utterly unexpected ending, a gorgeous, soulful turn at Lonnie Johnson's "Careless Love."

Watching Peyroux, you get a funny feeling you might be telling somebody decades from now you saw her when.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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