Rock and roll royalty visited Capitol Hill Friday night, and a near-capacity Neumo’s crowd dutifully gathered to pay homage.
Calling Wanda Jackson a living legend ain’t hyperbole–It’s simple, unvarnished truth. In 1955 she was a rising country star, and another up-and-comer–a kid from Tupelo named Elvis Presley–told her she’d be a natural singing rock and roll. Jackson took the guy’s advice, and a year later at the ripe old age of 18, she was belting out rock and roll with the kind of libidinous fire previously reserved for men. In an age where June Cleaver defined femininity, Jackson sounded (as journalist Nick Tosches once wrote) “like she could fry eggs on her G spot.”
Despite carving out a respectable career in rock and country music and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she never attained Elvis’s meteoric heights: Bluenoses could barely tolerate sexually-frank rock and roll from males, let alone a strong and vivacious female rocker, in the Eisenhower Era. But Wanda Jackson literally paved the way for every woman after her who’s ever dared to rock.
Clad in a fringed pink jacket and black pantsuit, the Wanda Jackson holding court at Neumo’s four days ago looked more like your grandma in her favorite extra-flashy Sunday outfit than the raven-haired rockabilly spitfire of yore. But her she-cat growl on old classics like “Let’s Have a Party” and the mighty “Fujiyama Mama” proved that she’s still able to kick up a full head of steam when it’s required. Jackson also took time to persuasively deliver a couple of ballads (including her mournful country classic “Right or Wrong“) amidst the shack-shaking rockabilly, and some of the best moments from her terrific Jack White-produced full-length, The Party Ain’t Over (including a sly cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good“) emerged mid-set.
Jackson’s hallowed status among musicians assures that she draws devoted creative collaborators like flies, so it’s no surprise that Seattle rockabilly demons the Dusty 45s served as her band in lieu of a battalion of slick session hacks. More than just a concession to the largely young audience, the 45s proved great foils, backing Jackson with an effective combination of thump-and-jump energy, evocative retro atmosphere and unabashed love. Oh, and Dusty 45s lead singer/guitarist Billy Joe Huels set his trumpet on fire as the band played Jackson out at the end.
As if a visitation from the Queen of Rockabilly wasn’t enough, the evening was stacked with impossibly strong opening acts (both, interestingly enough, from Oregon). Larry and His Flask thundered forth with a rip-snorting blend of bluegrass, fuel-injected rock, and old-school country–and they pumped it out with the cartoonish energy and whiplash-inducing hairpin turns of a punk band. The crowd chugged down the hellzapoppin’ set like a bunch of adrenaline-stoked moonshiners. Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside occupied the evening’s mid spot with a slightly more traditional (but no less awesome) tack on old school rock. Ford’s alien siren voice charmed and sucker-punched with exhilarating energy live, and the band’s new material kicked their rockabilly leanings in the pants with some almost menacing garage-rock stomp. I’ve said it before and will say it again ’til I’m blue in the face: Those who arrive early at shows in this town very frequently reap rich rewards.