To be honest, I figured Wanda Jackson was dead, taken from us early by a fast rockabilly lifestyle. You know, the tragic victim of some accident involving smokes, whiskey, a hot rod, and a train—with the radio still blasting Duane Eddy or Elvis Presley when the police showed up. So the title of this live disc is more than fitting. Not only is she alive, but she’s in her mid-60s with a surprising amount of her presence and vocal range intact—especially her trademark growl.
For anyone unfamiliar with Mrs. Jackson, her introduction as “the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll and the queen of rockabilly” is well deserved. Getting her start in the early ‘50s while still in high school, Jackson was uniquely poised to take advantage of both country music’s insatiable appetite for strong female singers and of the brand new rock ‘n’ roll landscape opened up by Elvis. During her first years of recording, she often backed her rockabilly singles with a b-side of the same song in a country arrangement—a rather clever way of taking a shot at both potential markets. Her versatility resulted in a number of charting pop and country hits, and she even hit #1 in Japan with the less-than-PC “Fujiyama Mama” (the irony isn’t lost on Jackson, as she admits on Live & Still Kickin’). Even today, acts with a sense of early American rock ‘n’ roll history routinely cover her songs. She even landed a slot on this year’s Bumbershoot Festival.
Arguably, Jackson’s best known for her rockabilly sides (which are collected in pretty comprehensive fashion on 2000’s highly recommended Queen of Rockabilly, and those dominate Live & Still Kickin’—her first live album in over twenty years. Backed by the New York Party Timers, she barrels through favorites like “Fujiyama Mama”, “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad”, “Riot in Cell Block #9”, and of course, “Let’s Have a Party”. There are some nice nods to her country background, too, in the form of Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues”, Jimmie Rodgers’s “Blue Yodel #6”, and Hank Thompson’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”. Her voice fares better on the rockabilly cuts, however (despite some really nice yodeling on “Lovesick Blues”), and she lets it all hang out on “Let’s Have a Party” (which gets suitable response from a rowdy, appreciative crowd). The only misstep of the night is a cover of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll”, which makes sense from a thematic perspective, but not from a stylistic one. It’s just a touch too slick and doesn’t really blend in with the rockabilly that surrounds it.
Jackson’s between song patter is unexpectedly charming. Taking a VH1 Storytellers-type approach to introducing each song, she often tells interesting tales of where songs come from and what they mean to her. Her recollections of touring Japan on the heels of “Fujiyama Mama” and of meeting Elvis are especially interesting, and her testimony of faith before “I Saw the Light” is sincere and straightforward. She even evokes a little jam session spontaneity, introducing “Let’s Have a Party” by telling the band to “get a D-chord and hang on” if they’re not familiar with how the song goes (before you realize there’s no way on Earth the band doesn’t know this particular classic).
If you’re totally new to Wanda Jackson, Live and Still Kickin’ might be an OK place to start; it bears several of her hits, it really is impressive how well she’s weathered the years, and the collection paints a well-rounded portrait of her as a performer. From an objective standpoint that doesn’t take her impressive catalog into account, there’s little wrong with most of these recordings. Still, listeners would do well to seek out one of the several excellent compilations that already exist of her vintage rockabilly and country studio cuts. For one thing, those crack rockabilly bands back in the day had a ragged snap and crack that Jackson’s backing band here just doesn’t possess (they’re a touch too fluid and professional in places). Besides, that, you’ll definitely want to hear Jackson belting out these tunes from when she was in her prime; they’re revolutionary and absolutely electric.