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A Vivoscene Concert Review by Brian Miller
Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, rocked The Venue Nightclub in Vancouver, BC, on Saturday, September 8, 2112 in all-too-brief but spectacular presentation of what she termed “a musical journey”. Backed by a ferociously tight backing band known as The Dusty 45s, Wanda kicked ass from the moment she stepped on the stage with such numbers as “Riot in Cell Block No. 9″, the Lieber-Stoller classic, and the delicious but lesser known stop-time masterpiece “I Gotta Know”, for which none other than Bob Dylan pronounced Wanda to be “a firecracker”. She might be going on seventy-three, but close your eyes and listen to her sing; she’s got the pipes of a woman half her age, with her iconic throaty snarl still intact, and a sultry intoxicating invitation in her voice that made the Vancouver late-summer heat seem all too symbolic. Yeah, Wanda’s still got it going on, alright.
Wanda reminded us that she was virtually the first girl to record rock and roll some 58 years ago, and she’s not through with the studio yet. Her last year’s album, The Party Ain’t Over, was the brainchild of Jack White, and in her words “he pushed me hard”. She described working with him as delightful and his character as “a brick covered in velvet”, but hot damn did that combo deliver on that album, particularly with her updated version of “Shakin’ All Over” which she performed last night in a fashion that convinced the audience that yes, live music is better. She did the same with “Mean Mean Man”, her hit from 1958 that she and The Dusty 45s simply killed. The visceral impact of her live performance frankly outshines a hundred readings of the current bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey.
There’s nothing ersatz or manufactured or insincere about Wanda, which is why she was so encouraged, and yes, courted by Elvis Presley. In tribute to Elvis, Wanda not only performed a blazing version of “Heartbreak Hotel”, she also served up a sizzling rendition of “Like A Baby”, a tempestuous number that Elvis recorded in 1960 with Nashville stalwarts Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Hank Garland and DJ Fontana. Wanda’s live take was easily the equal of other great female versions of this amazing song, notably Toni Arden and Vikki Nelson. Elvis would have been thrilled with the mix of passion and restraint that Wanda brought to her performance in Vancouver.
Other highlights: “Fujiyama Mama”, which the crowd adored, and her straight-up country version of “Right or Wrong”. And speaking of the crowd, it was surprisingly diverse and young and for the most part female. Turns out Wanda is very highly regarded by younger women. One might think that the audience for a 73 year old rockabilly singer might be predominantly senior, but that’s far from the case.
In fact, Wanda has a new album due out shortly, to be called Unfinished Business; it’s produced by Justin Townes Earle and features a somewhat more laid-back approach than Jack White’s hard-driving take on Wanda’s talents. On the album she’ll be showcasing such tunes as Etta James’s “Pushover”, Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars”, and the rock and roll classic “It’s All Over Now.” Look for our review in a few weeks, as this album is bound to be a contender.
Special mention must be made of two other factors that contributed to what was one of the finest shows to appear in Vancouver this year, the first being the superb acoustics and setting of The Venue Nightclub itself, and the second being the highly satisfactory (take this as ironic understatement please) opening act, Cousin Harley, a Vancouver rockabilly trio who more than warmed up the audience. They were terrific.
In short, this was an evening beyond expectations and a reminder that age is nothing but a number. Rock on, Wanda!