Last Monday night, Dolly Parton wrapped up the two-week Canadian portion of her Pure and Simple tour with a vivacious performance at Rogers Arena. As per the intent behind her latest album, also called Pure and Simple, she reminded fans that, as she half-joked, she can write songs, that she wasn’t just “something to look at.”
Production-wise, the show was a modest affair. Elegant, flowing curtains hung in the background collecting specks of light that resembled the Smokey Mountain stars. When Parton’s silhouette appeared behind one of the curtains, a mighty cheer went up. When the concealing curtain lifted, the arena erupted. Everyone stood on their feet.
Dressed in a sparkling white outfit two sizes too small for her (her estimate, not mine), Parton rode that initial momentum with the chugging “Night Train to Memphis”. She slowed down enough for songs like her all-time classic “Jolene” which the audience received with fire. “Well, I’m glad you remembered her!” Parton exclaimed. “I’ve been trying to forget her for 50 years!”
Her sense of humour shone all night. Excusing herself to grab a tissue, she disclosed that she’d been fighting a “little head cold.” “Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a chest cold. Having a chest cold would be like a giraffe with a neck cold!”
She had the most fun with her “sexy cowboy assistant” who brought out set pieces and helped her switch instruments periodically. As the sturdy gentleman extended his hand to help her up a small platform on which an ornamental seat awaited her, she took one look at him and unabashedly gushed, “Okay! I said I was married; I didn’t say I was blind!”
But Parton could sing and play as well as she could flirt (and she flirted all night with her cowboy). Her voice filled the arena on the naked “Little Sparrow”. She played autoharp on “My Tennessee Mountain Home”, harmonica on “Blowin’ in the Wind”, banjo on “Applejack”, piano on “The Grass is Blue”, and pennywhistle on “Smokey Mountain Memories”, a song dedicated to all the daddies out there. All the mommas got a song too: “Coat of Many Colours”. And, minding her manners, she even apologized for not dedicating a song to all her fans dressed in drag. “I should have sang, ‘Drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, please don’t take him just because you can!’”
Parton was also fond of pulling tricks – musical tricks. She and her three-piece band sang “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” a capella before they sped through a seconds-long Chipmunks version. And during the twin-banjo throw-down of “Rocky Top”, Parton traded her banjo for a miniature tailor-made saxophone and broke into “Benny Hill”. Following her solo, she asked the audience if she could attempt playing it backwards; she’d practiced real hard, she pleaded. Of course they wanted to see what she could do. So, with their approval, she took a deep breath, spun her back to crowd, and replayed the song normally. Oh, you got us, Dolly!
Her medleys also came as highlights. The band lined up at the front of the stage and launched into what she dubbed “Slice of American Pie”. The ingredients: “American Pie”, “If I Had a Hammer”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Later, she blended “Baby I’m Burnin’” with Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire”.
After “I’ll Fly Away” came a 20-minute break. “I’ll be back after intermission, so don’t fly away!”
For 45 more minutes, Parton and her band cozied up once again at the front of the stage and played more favourites including the lovestruck “Islands in the Stream”. Afterwards, she was finally ready to wind down. But her legion of fans wasn’t. “Look at you! You’re still goin’! You want me to sing more!?” Grateful for the love the Vancouver crowd showed her, she dedicated her final number, “I Will Always Love You”, to everyone in attendance.
Even without all the glitz, Dolly Parton showed Vancouver why she is a true cultural and entertainment icon: it’s not just the stage show or costumes; it’s her heartwarming humour, her southern charm, her life’s stories, and most importantly, her songs. Pure and simple.