There ain’t no crowd like a rockabilly crowd. Only rockabilly will bring together the punks and the cowpokes, the greasers and the yuppies for a hoedown throw down. And when the focus of the gathering is rockabilly royalty, then you know you are going to see something special. Wanda Jackson, the undisputed queen of rockabilly, positively killed with her set at Venue last Saturday.
The queen might be 74 now but don’t let her age fool you: she’s carnal as a hellcat. She might not move as her younger charges, but her voice is still there. Volatile as nitroglycerin, Jackson exudes charms, sexuality, sincerity and humble honesty, often in the same verse. Equipped with one of the greatest voices to ever grace rock and roll, country and gospel, Jackson sings with a heart stoked with grits. For a good country girl from Oklahoma, there sure is a lot of the devil in her.
Here is a woman who not only toured with but also dated Elvis Presley. Presley in fact gave Jackson the encouragement to play “his kind of music” way back when rock and roll was an infant. From 1958 through the early 1970s, Jackson had a string of hits that sealed her place in the rock and roll hall of fame, to which she was enshrined in 2009.
Now with one album produced by Jack White under her belt and another, produced by the equally great Justin Townes Earle, Jackson is not withering away her autumn years. As hot as her records sound, the stage is where she does her best cooking. On this night, every number smoked. Backed by a crackerjack band called the Dusty 45s, Jackson played a stirring set of classic rock, with a few shades of country and gospel thrown in for good measure.
From the moment she walked on stage to the tune “Riot in Cell Block #9” Jackson owned the audience. The crowd was devotional, vocal and fevered. A typical rockabilly crowd, basically. This was, from the opening salvo, a complete love-in. The packed dance floor positively vibrated with actual dancing. (Do they have White Lightning on tap?)
Everything the band touched was lit up with their incendiary playing. The 45s flat-out played the balls off every tune. And Jackson was more than equal. Bashing out renditions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Shaking All Over,” this was as good an overview of rock and roll as anything you could have asked for. From her own back catalogue came show-stopping classics like “Fujiyama Mama,” “Mean Mean Man” and “Funnel of Love”.
To calm and cool the crowd out a little, Jackson even baptized the front rows with some water from her bottle. Then she and the band launched back into business with “You Know I’m No Good.” (Yes, the Amy Winehouse song). She tarted the song up in the way that only a good country-girl-gone-bad can. The crowd lapped it up.
So appreciative and clearly humbled by the reaction, Jackson remarked to one of her sidemen, “This is my kind of crowd.”
Jackson took frequent breaks in between songs to introduce the next number on her history of rock and roll tour. These moments, which helped everyone on stage grab a breath, were just as revealing and entertaining as the music itself. Jackson is an old school entertainer and these moments allowed her to show off her humorous and playful sides.
She told the story of how when she dated Elvis, her Daddy acted as chaperone. (Wanda was not yet sixteen at the time). She dished about working with Jack White, who she respectfully called a “slave driver”. She shared how devastated she was by the death of the young, troubled chanteuse Winehouse. Introducing the classic “Funnel of Love”, Jackson revealed that Adele (with whom Jackson toured with in 2011) was so influenced by the number she wrote her mega-hit “Rollin’ in the Deep”.
But mostly, she poured everything out on the stage in song. Her voice is a true gift to humanity. That it exists for all eternity on disc is one thing; that she is still taking her voice from town to town is the real reward. And those in attendance at Venue can consider themselves right blessed to have seen Jackson. As for those who missed out… well, it’s a damn shame.