Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Wanda Jackson Charms the Crowd at Central Park

About ten years ago, when Wanda Jackson played New York, she’d be at the Continental. It’s still there just north of St. Mark’s Place, now doing business as a tourist bar. Back then it was a punk club about the same size as Cake Shop. Last night the “queen of rockabilly” played Central Park Summerstage, something of a return to the big grange halls and stadiums that she and her boyfriend at the time, Elvis, used to play fifty-five years ago. That’s probably due to the fact that Jack White recently looked her up and gave her up-and-down career a new boost just as he did with Loretta Lynn. Jackson played some of those songs last night with her excellent, surprisingly hard-rocking Nashville band the Hi-Dollars and showed off a considerably lower but still animated version of the droll, quirky voice that made her a genuine star in the rockabilly and then the country world.

As a performer, Jackson is a humble, genuinely nice lady: it’s impossible not to like her. After one song had ended, still holding the mic, she looked over at her pianist. “That turnaround was awesome. Really lovely,” she told him. She’s in her seventies now, and as the show went on, it was clear that singing over the loud, sometimes almost punked-out band behind her was leaving her winded. So she told stories between songs, to catch her breath – and admitted to why she was doing it. She still has the ring Elvis gave her when the two started dating, and coyly told the crowd that her two children had squabbled over who was to inherit it. Jackson decided instead to will it to her firstborn grandchild, who “Can’t wait til I croak – I’m kidding, of course.”

And the two-guitar band rocked: their version of Chuck Berry’s Carol wasn’t as good as the Dead Boys, or the Brooklyn What, but it was pretty close. They made their way through a handful of Elvis songs including a surprisingly artful, nuanced version of Like a Baby, Jackson playing up the snide, sarcastic ending for all it was worth. She expressed some hesitation about playing country music at a New York show, but the crowd loved it. She pulled off several blue yodels and made it look easy, and if anybody was weirded out by her late 50s hit Fujiyama Mama – which openly references death in Japan via nuclear holocaust – they didn’t show it. Rhythm guitarist Heath Haynes (the same guy who devastated batters with his changeup during a stint as a promising righthander in the Montreal Expos system?) took over the leads on a biting version of Shakin’ All Over, as he did on a later number that sounded almost exactly like it.

There were other moments like that during the show. As the night wore on and Jackson wore down, so did the crowd, many of whom had already sat through the generic if energetic opening act, retro singer Imelda May and her band. When Jackson explained her religious reawakening in the mid-70s, the audience was less than enthusiastic – but within a minute she had pretty much everybody singing gospel. Finally, after almost an hour onstage, they launched into the cult favorite Let’s Have a Party and wrapped it up in a blaze of guitars. For the encores, Jackson invited May back to join her on a couple of numbers, including a brief reprise of that song. Most of the audience, a heartwarming mix of demographics, was still there.

July 28, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Elvis’ First Albums After the Army Get a New Look

The brand-new reissue of Elvis Is Back – a twofer with Presley’s subsequent 1960 album Something for Everybody, plus a whole slew of singles, some of them iconic, some mostly forgotten – is just out from Sony. The argument’s been made that Elvis Is Back was his best album, and that’s not true: he did his best work for Sun, and then in the 70s when he was on autopilot, but with an amazing band behind him ( and the ’68 comeback isn’t bad either). But this period piece – an essential collectors item for the Elvis cult – still oozes energy. Let’s not forget that only two years earlier, his career had been put on hold by racists who were terrified that the era’s best-loved pop culture figure was converting young white people to black music faster than any racist could stop him. So whatever his experiences were in the Army, there’s no doubt that Elvis was glad to be back – and the musicians behind him obviously agreed.

Interestingly, Elvis Is Back is mostly an album of ballads: that they stand up as well as they do fifty years later testifies to how much care and anticipation went into this. The shuffling David Lynchian vibe of Girl Next Door Went a-Walking is still irresistible, and the blues numbers, Reconsider Baby and It Feels So Right foreshadow what would sustain him so effectively throughout the ’68 special. Done with only bass and percussion, his cover of The Fever falls somewhere between the Peggy Lee hit and the Cramps. And Such a Night reminds how much more sophisticated a singer he’d become since he’d first recorded the old Drifters hit in 1954: it’s Elvis and band doing the Rat Pack, right down to the nonchalant exuberance of the drum outro.

That Elvis and the band could have recorded all but one of the dozen tracks on Something for Everybody in one night – or have been subjected to that by the label, considering his artistic status, never mind his value to them – is pretty remarkable. Then again, that was how albums were made in those days. Elvis sounds no worse for the marathon, and the band rises to the occasion as well. The real stunner here is the perfectly Orbisonesque noir pop ballad There’s Always Me, capped off by an unexpectedly explosive outro. Did a teenage Van Dyke Parks play along to the creepy music box piano of It’s a Sin? Did a young Roger McGuinn do the same with the proto folk-pop of Gently? Did the Searchers use the boisterous uptempo guitar blues of Put the Blame on Me as the prototype for an entire career? It would seem so.

To sweeten the pot, there are also a dozen singles included. In hindsight, Fame and Fortune (which Arthur Kent ripped off for Skeeter Davis’ The End of the World) stands out as a dismissal of celebrity that might be far less ironic than it seems. As a blueprint for Mark Sinnis’ Mistaken for Love, Are You Lonesome Tonight takes on a new intensity. And the completely over-the-top tango Surrender, with its James Bond ambience, is impossible to hear without smiling. The rest of the stuff either burned out long ago on oldies radio or never made it that far to begin with. All together, this trip back to a time before autotune is an awful lot of fun.

March 7, 2011 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 10/31/08

Counting down the alltime top 666 songs (the full list is at top right), one a day. Today’s is #634: Elvis Presley – Way Down

Happy Halloween! It only makes sense that today’s song would be by a dead man. Some may call this schlock, but listen closely and you’ll realize that this is the King’s death song. He knew it was coming. Elvis wasn’t a songwriter, and considering the condition he was in at the end, one can only wonder what if any say he had in the selection of this song as his very last single. But you can tell that something is awry here. So could he. “The lights are growing dim…”

October 30, 2008 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music | , , , | Leave a comment