In the 1950s, Wanda Jackson was one of the first women to record rockabilly music, and it’s a safe bet to say she’s did it better than any women who would follow her lead. However, while she helped pave the way for women to rock out, her impact wasn’t felt immediately; and although she released a number of classic singles, her success was limited compared to an Elvis Presley or a Chuck Berry. In many ways, she was a victim of the times, as the fifties were unpromising for a woman challenging America’s commonly accepted model of femininity, which was to be a domesticated housewife to a male breadwinner. Only in recent years has she received the well-deserved recognition for her influence and music, with tributes in the form of albums and concerts, as well as a place in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame.
While it’s great that people have come around to acknowledge Jackson’s past achievements, her January 23rd show at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre confirmed that she is still breaking new ground and making a big sound, with a little help from her friends. The show was part of a tour promoting her new release on Jack White’s Third Man records, a collection of covers titled “The Party Ain’t Over,” and this particular evening was one of the very few dates that the label’s founder and house band would be joining her live. For 75 minutes, the Queen of Rockabilly and company captured the spirit of early rock n’ roll, but added elements of gospel, western swing, blues and as you’d expect from any band that features Jack White on guitar, a heaviness and bite that could take music of yesterday’s past and make it feel like anything but oldies.
Shortly after an opening set of belligerent and barebones rockabilly goth-punk from the California-based Haunted George, an eleven piece band crowded the stage, with Jack White up front and center to kick off the set with blistering riffage. The band came crashing in behind him with a deafening rock-and- blues stomp that was sure to have the audience of hipsters, greasers and rockers heading home that night with ringing ears. After a minute or two of this killer intro jam, a 73 year old Jackson, looking classy as ever in a white rhinestone-laden fringed jacket and a galore of shiny jewelry, stepped out from behind the pulled-back curtains and started to belt out the lyrics to “Riot in Cell Block #9.” As far-out as it seemed to see this cute, dolled-up senior citizen standing before a thunderous band dressed mostly in black (with a bit of pink, perhaps for irony), when it came to the music, Jackson’s feisty and fiery roar sounded as tough as ever.
Jackson’s voice was surely in fine shape and her new Third Man ensemble, complete with a brass section and shimmying backup singers, provided original and lively arrangements to classic covers and some of the Oklahoma native’s best songs. The whimsical melody and country twang of Harlan Howard’s “Busted” (made popular by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles) was met with blaring horns and caveman bashing on the drums, adopting the cuteness-meets-viciousness combo from the playbook of White’s old band, the White Stripes. Piano-and-guitar driven boogie numbers like “Mean Mean Man” and “Fujiyama Mama” remained just that at their core, but were now layered in a wall of sound that gave the music the big band treatment. Covers of “Rip it Up” (made popular by Bill Haley and Little Richard) and Eddie Cochran’s “Nervous Breakdown,” were spiced up with the ferocity of punk, while “Dust on the Bible” got down with a whole lot of funk.
Then of course was a hat trick of songs by Jackson’s one-time boyfriend and touring mate, Elvis Presley. As the story goes, it was Presley who encouraged Jackson to embrace rockabilly, and on this night, she and her Third Man family paid homage to the man who shook up the fifties more than any other performer. Early on, there was “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” and at the end of the night, the band took on “Let’s Have a Party,” which led right into “Heartbreak Hotel.” The band’s vibrant playing created a surreal backdrop for Jackson’s soulful vocals and the antsy and animated Jack White, who paced the stage and unleashed electrifying solos like a possessed Scotty Moore. Even for those who’ve heard these songs a million times over in their lifetime, the band tackled them with such gusto that they sounded fresh.
At one point, Jackson referred to Jack White as a “velvet covered brick.” For those that didn’t understand, she continued; “He’s going to get his way, but he asks so sweetly.” There was no doubt that White had an agenda when he decided to work with Jackson. It seemed like his goal as producer of her latest studio effort, as well as band leader of her live show, was to celebrate her storied past but also to push her outside of her comfort zone, much like he had done for country music singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn on her 2004 release, “Van Lear Rose.” Aside from the previously mentioned song arrangement twists, which certainly revealed the influence of his directive input, perhaps the most surprising piece of music that he brought to the table was a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” Under most circumstances, getting any septuagenarian to be open to something new is going to be an uphill battle, as was the case with Jackson, but in the end White was able to sell it and when the song was played in front of a live audience, it garnered fervent applause of the night. Much like Johnny Cash had done with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Jackson had taken this modern day hit and made it her own.
The night was brought to a close with an exhilarating cover of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over.” Overall, it was a fantastic night that saw one of the great founding figures of rock n’ roll shine on, over half of a century after she embraced the form. Although there was no doubt that Wanda Jackson was still the First Lady of Rockabilly, the brilliant ideas and scorching guitar work of Jack White, as well as the sheer power and warm radiance of his label’s house band, added a contemporary feel and edge that took her classic sound into the 21st Century. Considering that we now that we live in a time where many of the early rock n’ rollers from have passed on or are no longer able to capture the magic of what once was, it was comforting to witness Jackson have a moment like this. Indeed, the party definitely ain’t over.
Setlist: Riot in Cell Block #9, Busted, Mean Mean Man, You Know I’m No Good, I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Right or Wrong, Blue Yodel #6, Rip It Up, Nervous Breakdown, Fujiyama Mama, Funnel of Love, Dust on the Bible, Let’s Have A Party, Heartbreak Hotel, Shakin’ All Over