Wanda Jackson Compound Grill Friday, March 9, 2012
Wanda Jackson may be 74 years old, but one would hardly know it listening to her belt out classics from her long and storied career Friday night at the Compound Grill.
Working from a set list reaching from her earliest numbers in 1955 to her most recent album produced by Jack White (who did similar wonders a few years back with Loretta Lynn), Jackson, the "Queen of Rockabilly," was in fine form following a two week touring break. Entering the stage to a revved-up classic rockabilly beat, Jackson kicked things off with "Riot in Cell Block #9," followed by an equally rowdy "Rock Me Baby." Dressed in a frilly and spangle-y pink jacket and black pants that matched her full head of hair, Jackson's third number, "Hard-Headed Woman," elicited big cheers. Her fans, many her age or close (though there was a younger, suitably retrobilly chic contingent as well), heartily welcomed every song, hung on every joke and tolerated every song's story, a couple of which were somewhat long-winded, something even Jackson acknowledged.
But when she was singing, well, she still has that voice. Raw, gritty, dry, growling and emotive, Jackson's vocal edge showed how and why she earned her Queen of Rockabilly title. Coming up as a country singer, Jackson soon fell under the influence of early rock 'n' roll and pumped up the beat, often mixing both musical styles into her compositions. Elvis Presley prompted her to take it further, something the bookers at the Grand 'Ol Opry probably didn't appreciate, but plenty of others did. Her first hit, she told the audience, was "a little bit country, a little bit rockabilly." "I Gotta Know" started out twangy and slow in classic country style, but quickly sped up on a walking bass beat, before dropping back down. "Fujiyama Mama" and "Right or Wrong" offered more of a country swing drive to the rockabilly flavor, while "Mean, Mean Man" (the first rock 'n' roll song she wrote) and was straight-up and raw, her voice practically growling fury. Her mini-Elvis tribute, however, went further and was even more stripped down and churning than The King's original versions.
Jackson credited Elvis with guiding her to the rockabilly path but, "I didn't think I could be that kind of singer. I was a straight country singer, but I could sing." Clearly, Elvis saw something in the young singer that would eventually land her in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jackson also played five songs from her White-produced album, The Party Ain't Over. Here, the band, which was pretty conservative all night, stepped to the harder-edged rock 'n' roll task before them. The occasional horn accents from the keyboards were somewhat cheesy and, frankly, demeaning, and the guitar leads were almost too clean, but it all served a purpose: providing a mostly solid platform from Jackson to sing from. Tackling numbers by The Who, Amy Winehouse (with the "objectionable" lyrics changed by White, though it still came off sensual and sexy), Little Richard, and Eddie Cochran, plus one original, Jackson was clearly having fun and relishing the moment of her career being revitalized.
"At the end of the sessions," she said, "I realized he (White) had pushed me into the 21st Century."
As raucous and rowdy as the bulk of the show was, there was one out-of-place moment: when Jackson touted her love of Jesus (to an oddly vocal crowd affirmation that outshined several of her songs) and then performed a standard and mundane gospel number. Once those three minutes had passed, however, Jackson was back to belting it out, pacing the stage, and giving a rousing performance that culminated in a stomping "Let's Have a Party" segueing into Carl Perkins' "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and back into "Let's Have a Party."
Jackson always had a reputation as a bit of a firebrand, and, as was evidenced this evening, with more than 50 years as a performer, that's done nothing but serve her well.
Last Night: The Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson
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Personal bias: There's not much that interests me in country music, but when a 74-year-old woman sounds like she could front The Cramps, something makes sense.
The crowd: Prune juice and Red Bull should have been the house special for this mostly senior crowd mixed with a sprinkling of younger fans. Random notebook dump: That song ("I Gotta Know") must have confounded listeners in 1956. Was she trying to be the female Elvis?
Overheard: In the men's room: "Her voice has faded a little, but man, her hair still looks great."