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Sultry Norah Jones turns up the juice

Times Staff Writer

Norah Jones has come a long way since opening for John Mayer last spring at the House of Blues -- 2-million album sales for starters, along with enough acclaim to make her the odds-on favorite for best new artist, and more, in the Grammy balloting.

So it figured that the sultry Texan would be the center of attention at KCRW-FM’s annual Sounds Eclectic Evening benefit concert Saturday at the Universal Amphitheatre.

But Jones proved even more winning than expected, first with her own set, then showing a new, playful side in a duet with Beck on an old country ballad, “Sleepless Nights.”

That highlighted an engaging sequence that brought a much-needed sense of edgy vitality and even a touch of pop anarchy to the 4 1/2-hour event.

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We all love KCRW (89.9) and Nic Harcourt, its excellent musical director, but the Santa Monica-based public radio station’s strength -- showcasing music that is unerringly tasteful and, to varying degrees, cerebral -- can also be a weakness when nine of its acts are placed back to back in concert.

The lineup was certainly eclectic, stretching from the positive rap of Blackalicious to the percussion-driven rock en espanol of Kinky on through the soulful electronica of Zero 7 to an SUV-ful of singer-songwriters, including Aimee Mann, Beth Orton, Ramsey Midwood and Pete Yorn.

Then came Beck, an unannounced guest, who brought that needed slice of vitality. For openers, he and his buddy Wayne Coyne, leader of the band Flaming Lips, enlivened things with ragged duets of such songs as Sonny & Cher’s goofy “I Got You Babe” and Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings’ outlaw anthem, “Good Hearted Woman.”

Beck, who plays with the Flaming Lips tonight at Universal, then stayed on stage for three more duets. Besides the one with Jones, he sang the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” with Orton and then the zesty “Grease” hit “You’re the One That I Want” with Zero 7’s Sia Furler.

Because singer-pianist Jones and her stylish three-piece group had to follow all that, as well as Orton’s stirring earlier set, you wondered whether this pop newcomer wouldn’t be upstaged.

No way.

Jones has some superior songs on her hit album “Come Away With Me,” but she’s blessed with a sultry, seductive vocal style that could give any good song the feel of a classic.

When she turned to a number by the Band, she also showed artistic daring. Instead of “The Weight” or another hit, she sang “Bessie Smith,” an obscure one that the Band recorded with Bob Dylan during the “Basement Tapes” sessions in the ‘60s. Sure enough, it felt like a classic.

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