Concert Reviews

Over The Weekend: Wanda Jackson at the Kessler Theater

Wanda Jackson, The King Bucks, Lalagray
Kessler Theater
February 26, 2011

Better than:
a normal Saturday night spent with a 73-year-old.

Just before the clock struck 11 on Saturday night, Wanda Jackson sauntered, quite slowly, onto the stage at the Kessler Theater, ushered in by a standing ovation -- one that, quite literally, engulfed the diminutive and legendary performer. Indeed: Even with the aided height of the Kessler's raised stage platform, only the top of her big hairdo was unblocked from view.

That was the first of many reveals on this night -- that, despite the legendary singer's massive voice, Jackon's shockingly small.

Eventually, the 400 or so people packed into the sold-out theater settled back into their seats, and Jackson, ever the seasoned performer, settled into her role -- that of focal point, storyteller, emcee and sassy observer.

For the entire 90 minutes of her performance on this night, the woman known as both the First Lady of Rockabilly and the Queen of Rock gave the audience exactly what they came to see. She regaled her audience with stories of Elvis Presley, of Jack White, of her trials and tribulations as America's first female rock singer and of her career transition from rock vocalist to gospel singer and back again.

It was, and very much felt like, a once-in-a-lifetime offering from a performer who, despite the general perception, made sure to remind her audience that she's been doing this same thing for 50 years now. But it wasn't without its flubs.

At her set's start, Jackson acknowledged to the crowd that she was battling laryngitis -- and that she had been for going on two years at this point. And, sure enough, that much was evident in her offerings, her voice quivering and not intentionally as she ran through her catalog, starting with her earliest hits and proceeding up through her most recent, Jack White-produced release, The Party Ain't Over, which includes, as this set did, her extremely awkward cover of Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good." Still, the crowd cared not, more charmed with her gumption to go on than anything. And so it was forgiven that her voice wasn't wholly on point, that she flubbed more than a few lyrics and that, when she'd miss a vocal cue, she blamed the King Bucks, who served as her backing band on this night, more often than admitting fault herself.

Such is the deserved grace given to a diva of Jackson's stature -- one further emboldened by her spitfire persona and her tales. It's tough to argue with those, especially when, given her vocal struggles, Jackson felt compelled to talk at great lengths to her audience on this night, if only as a means of further loosening her vocal cords.

The things she shared: Elvis is a good kisser; her husband is a better one; how great it felt to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; how awkward it felt to have a No. 1 record in Japan, but never stateside; how humbled she felt by the fact that the people she worked with over the years (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis) "sounds like a who's who," even if they were just her "buddies."

These tales, coupled with her energetic, if somewhat reigned in performances of songs like "Let's Have A Party," "Heartbreak Hotel," "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and "Shakin' All Over" gave the night a truly special feel -- the kind, certainly, that White envisioned when partnering with Jackson on her new album, and that gives a long-overshadowed artist her proper due. The crowd sure seemed intent on giving the performance this sheen. And, one figures, by nights end, Jackson surely felt it, too.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I am by no means a Wanda Jackson expert or outright fan, but you certainly have to respect her longevity, as well as her barrier-breaking career.

By The Way: The uninitiated fan in the audience may have watched the show and scoffed at the King Bucks' offerings, given Jackson's miscues and subsequent ribbings directed at the band (which, in her defense, came sprinkled amidst praise as well). Considering, however, that the band had only sound-check to run through the material with Jackson -- who, during that time, instructed the band to change the key of their entire performance and -- I'd say they did remarkably well, even altering sound structure and volume by keeping a keep eye on Jackson and picking up on cues she didn't specify.

Random Note: Shows like this one prove why Dallas needs a venue like the Kessler. It's an intimate, comfortable, professional space.

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman