Though blessed with an exquisitely pliable alto, Madeleine Peyroux has always been too reserved and retro for the diverse adult-contemporary market that embraced Norah Jones and Adele. Instead, this former teen busker has unwound her jazz-pop career over 20 years like Billie Holiday once unwound her vocals, hanging languidly behind the times like her biggest influence hung behind the beat.
So on this appropriately gloomy Sunday, the 1,200-seat Berklee Performance Center was filled with just over 750 ticket buyers, mostly white, well past Peyroux’s age of 41, and, as the singer noted with admiration, “incredibly quiet.”
Their restraint befitted the refined performance by Peyroux, upright bassist Barak Mori, and electric guitarist Jon Herington. Even when all three were singing and playing together — Peyroux on acoustic guitar or six-string ukulele — fans could hear her swivel chair creak and birds chirp in the rafters.
“I hope you’re in a really good mood right now,” she cracked early on. “Because I don’t have much of a reputation for cheering things up.”
Even so, the 90-minute set proved that looseness and humor can coexist with sensitivity and cool, and that retro isn’t the same as conservative. Raising her shimmering beige shawl as she first sat down, Peyroux called it her celebratory “rainbow attire” and then settled into her version of Hank Williams’s 1953 country smash “Take These Chains From My Heart.”
As it opens her 2013 album “The Blue Room,” her rendition nods to Ray Charles’s groundbreaking soul-pop remake of 1962, setting the stage for Peyroux’s own jazzy versions of country songs. But in concert, her reference to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision gave the title some contemporary heft. (Later in the evening, she added a Robin Williams joke: “Anyone who’s been married knows it’s always the same sex.”)
At her best, Peyroux often grounded her performance’s gossamer grace with terrestrial tethers like that, whether it was the foreboding in Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” the saunter in a handful of blues, or the bossa nova sultriness in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber,” which drew the night’s biggest applause. To close, however, Peyroux chose a ballad recorded by Holiday in 1950, “This Is Heaven to Me,” letting its slow lines drift up and away, a gift to the nestlings.
At: Berklee Performance Center, SundayFranklin Soults can be reached at email@example.com.