12 Oct 2012: New York
She’s got fizz, the old gal. Spark, even. You should be so lucky to be up on stage, shaking hips to ancient, crowd-stoker songs with names like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party”, looking like the rockingest grandma on the planet, and plainly enjoying a nice little renaissance at age 75.
She, of course, would be the great Wanda Jackson, who since her Jack White-shepherded resurgence in 2010 has seen a charming, late-career bounce, playing to some of the most varied—not to mention, youngest—crowds she has in decades. She’s a relic, sure, but what credentials: the Queen of Rockabilly, a treasure from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll era who helped pulled rock and roots and traditional C&W into the same orbit, who was a longtime friend, and briefly, girlfriend, of Elvis Presley’s, and is an acknowledged influence on everyone from Rosie Flores to Cyndi Lauper and Adele.
Though Jackson’s return to the spotlight has taken a similar path, she wasn’t exactly lost to time and obscurity like, say, Bettye LaVette—she’s always had attendant fans and never quite stopped making albums, even if she spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s playing to revivalist fans in Europe. But the timing of this late-career triumph, from her involvement with White to the renewed push to honor her as a legend following her 2009 Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, has been nothing short of cinematic.
As the story goes—and she told it, for the umpteenth time, during a recent visit to New York’s Highline Ballroom—avowed fan White gave her a call out of the blue back in 2009, and asked to do a record. She was surprised and nervous, and there was lots of hard work and a little bit of fun to follow—White’s a slavedriver in the studio, she reminded the crowd. Critics loved it, there was milk-able hipster cred especially after what White had done with Loretta Lynn in 2004, and Jackson and a well-oiled band soon turned up in clubs, including a firecracker of a show with White himself in the band at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg in January 2011.
That concert came from the guts, hopped up on anticipation, with White’s imprimatur guaranteeing a sell-out while the raconteur himself deftly stayed in the background, part of a 10-piece ensemble. The joy was watching White watch Wanda throughout that shimmying, stringy performance. It was clear there was no bigger Wanda Jackson fan in the house that night.
Nearly two years later, this Wanda Jackson show, at a nearly sold-out Highline, was a lower-key, more refined affair, something to settle into rather than get fired up about. Given the hype around her resurgence and subsequent cresting of that hype, it was reasonable to expect these shows would be gravy, so why overthink it? Wanda doesn’t need new tricks, and she’s slid pretty neatly back into a revue-style concert. It’s a streamlined band of five players, a reliable setlist, and recycled banter with a few in-the-moment snatches, topped off with the effortless charm of the lady herself: warm, professional, a little flirty, and definitely fox-sly. You’re sure she knows where all the bodies are buried behind that sunbeam smile.
Why it works and why it’s a marked contrast to the garden-variety revue shows you see from aging, long-past-prime stars on the casino and county fair circuit is that Jackson just seems so genuinely grateful to be remembered and admired. Sure, these songs are sturdy, with an ace band making their delivery clean, crisp and un-frilled, and Wanda herself gamely pushing her voice as far as it will go. But it’s the little touches—the grateful-to-be-here touches—such as in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #6”, when Jackson attempts the yodels, nails them, and basks in the expected audience whoop and cheer knowing that one night she’ll try and no longer be able to do them.
For a little over an hour, Jackson played tour guide in a travelogue of her major work, from the ‘50s and ‘60s hits, most smooth, some creaky, with stopovers in Elvis country (“Heartbreak Hotel”), and a nice clutch of the White-produced material from 2011’s “The Party Ain’t Over”, including Jackson snarling a bit through the chorus of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”.
Most songs included lengthy intros, and heaps of praise both adoring (Elvis, White, liner notes scribe Stephen King) and bittersweet, such as for Winehouse, whom Jackson lamented never having gotten the chance to meet and whose songs she promised to “keep singing, for her fans”.
Late in the set, things got a little more interesting, with three selections from Unfinished Business. A new album, released earlier that week, this one hews a little bit more toward Jackson’s own legacy of country, roots and even blues, rather than what White seemed to have wanted to hear from her.
White wasn’t involved with this one; instead, Jackson delivers under the watchful eye of producer Justin Townes Earle, another younger-generation admirer with country and blues bona fides and a hipster streak. The tone of “Business” is just that, with Earle—in apparently his first major producing job—looking back to the sounds that Jackson first explored to such success in the ‘50s and ‘60s and delivering something clean and comfortably vintage-sounding. The three songs Jackson did from the album were a nice cross-section of that, from the playful assessment of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, to a galloping take on the Freddie King blues chestnut “Tore Down” and—the night’s emotional centerpiece—a teary-eyed ballad of a regret called “Am I Even a Memory”, written by ‘90s alt-country savant Greg Garing. (Garing, who was in the audience having performed the early opening set, was saluted by Jackson from the stage.)
On “Business”, the song is a duet between Jackson and Earle, and while Earle didn’t join the band at the Highline (as had been widely rumored), Jackson nailed both the song’s traditionally country, cry-in-your-beer underpinning and its faintly angsty, more ‘90s-indie-sounding vibe. That area, in which strands from both traditional country and anxious indie rock inform a particularly emotional form of alt-country, might be interesting terrain for Jackson as she keeps performing, and Earle seems to have recognized that.
It was a pleasant little show. Jackson commands the stage, 75 years and all, and she seemed a little frustrated about needing to turn to lyric sheets for the newer material—a nudgy acquiescence to her age. (She repeated the line used in her 2011 Brooklyn show about seeing Elvis do that once and that “If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for the Queen.”) But she smiled, she laughed, she joked, she threw a little water on the crowd, she shook hands and still had a cheeky grin wider and higher than her teased up hair after an hour of unsputtering energy. If this is twilight for the Queen, then twilight looks pretty damn good.