Puss N Boots Pounce on Pittsburgh: Mr. Small’s Theatre (Millvale, PA – Oct. 4, 2014)
An informal survey of a handful of audience members yielded the following results: an overwhelming number of people were in attendance to see Norah Jones. However, there was one couple that sheepishly admitted that they were there because “they liked Puss N Boots” from the Shrek movies because “he’s just so cute.” Considering these results, I feel an introduction to the group is necessary, prior to any review.
Puss N Boots (PNB) is touring in support of their debut album No Fools, No Fun (out on Blue Note Records). Formed as a side-project of Sasha Dobson and Norah Jones in 2008, Puss N Boots had a specific purpose — so that the pair could learn how to play the guitar (and in Sasha’s case, the drums, too). While the song selection has a classic/alt-country vibe, this group is not to be confused with Norah’s other country-tinged side-project, the Little Willies. The core-criteria for the songs PNB selected were that they would be simple to learn and play for fledgling guitarists. Catherine “Cat” Popper was welcomed into the group not long after they began performing and the trio has been together ever since.
As my informal audience survey would suggest, many know the nine-time Grammy winner Norah Jones. Born in Brooklyn, Norah is the daughter of sitar legend Ravi Shankar and Sue Jones. After her parents separated, Norah’s mother relocated them to Texas in 1986 (possibly another reason for Norah’s love affair with country songs). In 1999, Norah returned to NYC and the rest of her story … well, you probably know it.
Sasha Dobson grew up in a jazz family (her father was an acclaimed jazz pianist and her mother was a vocalist). Sasha’s first album was released in 2005 and her 2006 follow-up Modern Romance was produced by Jesse Harris (long-time Norah Jones collaborator). It would seem that Sasha and Norah’s friendship was destined to be.
While not known for her solo work, Cat Popper has performed with many eclectic and established artists, including serving as a member of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, and Jack White’s touring band. She has also collaborated with Mike Doughty, Hem, Joseph Arthur, and of course, Norah Jones. Cat’s renowned as a power-house bass player.
Following Puss N Boots performance, there were a few key take-aways. First, as artist side-projects go, I must say that Puss N Boots is fun. They’re having fun, the audience is having fun, and they’ve stated that they’ll keep playing together until it’s not fun.
Second, Sasha Dobson will undoubtedly acquire new fans following this tour. Of the three, she seemed to be the firecracker of the group. Her energy and enthusiasm (as well as sass) was infectious for her bandmates and audience alike. It’s a shame that Dobson didn’t have any of her albums for sale at the merch table (comically enough though, they stated that this was the first show of the tour where they “remembered” to bring their PNB CDs to sell).
Third, while Cat Popper is an incredible supporting player (especially with bass), it’s time for her to capture the spotlight and make an album of her own. I can only imagine the many talented guest artists who would love to return the favor and support her, for a change. Cat’s vocal styling reminds me of Sarah Harmer’s and the two songs she penned for PNB’s No Fools, No Fun are strong, especially “Always”.
Fourth, Norah Jones can definitely play a mean guitar. She had several solos that stood out, especially on Neil Young’s “Down By The River”.
Fifth, while not strictly a cover band like their rambunctious opening act Van Hayride (definitely worth arriving a little early to see), Puss N Boots does expose their audience to both classic and obscure cover songs from a wide range of artists.
What follows is a detailed listing of the Puss N Boots setlist with a bit of background on the songs (many thanks to Cat Popper for sending me a copy of the setlist):
1. The opener of the show was a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues” with Norah & Sasha sharing vocal duties. While not on the album, it’s been part of the group’s live repertoire for years.
2. Next up was a cover of The Band’s “Twilight” which does appear on No Fools, No Fun. PNB began performing this song as a tribute to the late Levon Helm. Cat Popper is an unabashed fan of Levon and appropriately took lead on this one with vocal support coming from Sasha and Norah respectively.
3. Cat continued on lead with the first original song of the evening, the stand-out track, “Always,” which can be found on the PNB album.
4. The fourth song of the set is where they get their album’s title from, “Bull Rider.” Written by Rodney Crowell, but popularized by Johnny Cash, it is a staple of the Puss N Boots live shows. It previously appeared on a compilation album of Norah’s from 2010 entitled “ … Featuring” (with just she and Sasha). An updated live-version of the track appears on the No Fools, No Fun release.
5. Next was the song that starts off their album, a cover of Tom Paxton’s “Leaving London” where the trio shared the spotlight and created perfect harmonization.
6. One of the most energizing moments of the night was “Double Duty,” by Rockabilly legend Eddie Bond. While it doesn’t appear on their album, it was one of the highlights of the night, a true crowd pleaser with Sasha taking lead (although Cat’s bass and Norah’s guitar playing definitely shared some of that spotlight).
7. Big on the Johnny Cash covers with “Cry, Cry, Cry” seemed like a natural selection for the trio. Norah took lead vocals on this one. Unfortunately, this one also doesn’t appear on their album.
8. We can thank Sasha Dobson for the second original of the night, “Sex Degrees of Separation”. While it a new version is on No Fools, No Fun, it originally appeared as “Sex Degrees” on Sasha’s 2013 solo release, Aquarius.
9. Released the same year of Norah’s debut album, Wilco’s Yankee Foxtrot Hotel featured “Jesus, Etc.” which Norah has been known to perform in the past. A phenomenal song that’s a perfect selection for PNB, this probably was the highlight of the show for those who were there just to see Norah.
10. “Tarnished Angel” is a Johnny Miller song, but is probably best known for George Jones’ take on it. On PNB’s album, they feature a live version of this song. Sasha took lead vocals on this one from behind the drums.
11. One of my favorite surprise covers of the night was Concrete Blonde’s “Joey” with Cat Popper on lead. The only outlier of the night as far as genres go, Cat did a phenomenal job on this classic from 1990’s Bloodletting.
12. A Norah original and the album’s lead single, “Don’t Know What It Means” was rolled out half-way through the set (I was surprised that this was neither the opener nor the encore). By this point in the evening, the trio was all warmed up and the audience responded accordingly.
13. While many have recorded “In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town” PNB’s version was influenced by Doris Day’s version. Cat took lead on this non-album song.
14. The group’s next selection was a Jeb Loy Nichols’ penned tune, “GTO”. While Nichols’ spent most of his life in the United Kingdom, he grew up in the States and lived in Wyoming and Texas. Sasha took lead on this one, which does appear on their album.
15. Spontaneity is a part of their live shows and there was a bit of back and forth over this next song selection. Ultimately, they settled on “Tell Your Mama” which is another Norah original, and while it doesn’t appear No Fools, No Fun, it is featured on her 2009 album The Fall. She and Sasha shared vocal duties.
16. “You’ll Forget Me” closes out No Fools, No Fun and was the second to last song of their set. Sasha was on lead vocals from behind the drums on her original song from her 2010 release Burn.
17. They closed out their set with the Neil Young classic, “Down by the River” with Norah on lead. A highlight of the album and the show, the audience was just as much involved as the band.
18. For their encore, they returned to the stage with Woody Guthrie’s “Deep Sea” … a non-album track that was originally supposed to go where “Tell Your Mama” ended up.
While I’ve listened to Sasha Dobson since her 2006 release Modern Romance, and I knew of Catherine Popper from her work with other artists, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that Norah Jones was not the major motivating factor in my decision to attend. However, by the end of the night, myself and the rest of the audience were hootin’ and hollerin’ for more not just from Norah, but also Sasha and Cat.