If anyone at the Hamilton had any reservations about how much petrol the legendary Wanda Jackson had left in the tank, those fears quickly went out the window with the first bluesy notes of her opening song, “Riot in Cell Block No. 9.” The diminutive 75-year-old “queen of rockabilly” with the honey-and-whisky-tinged growl sang about “serving time for armed robbery,” and it was easy to believe that’s exactly where she was during the titular jail fight. The rocking tune kicked off an raucous set of music that started great and somehow kept getting better.
She kept it rolling with “Rock Your Baby,” a hit from 1958, which Jackson told the enthusiastic crowd would be the start of a “musical journey through 58 years” of her career. The journey continued with 1956’s “I Gotta Know,” her second hit (after 1954’s “You Can’t Have My Love”) which reached #15 on the country charts. Her backing band, The In-Laws (more on them in a bit) performed the alternately rockabilly/honkytonk song brilliantly, as Jackson snapped her fingers through the frequent tempo changes. Jackson shrugged off the “rockabilly” label, however, noting that “they called it rockabilly - we just called it rock and roll.”
Proof of how far-reaching Jackson’s fanbase is was evident in her fourth song, the 1961 hit “Funnel of Love.” Jackson re-recorded the song in 2003 when she was joined by The Cramps, and the tune has been covered by the Meat Puppets, The Fall, and Mike Ness of Social Distortion. Jackson, however, proved that no one does it better than her.
She then showed off her prodigious skills as a country singer, starting with 1969’s “My Big Iron Skillet,” a raucous roadhouse tune about a spurned lover clocking the man who wronged her with, well, you know what. She added “Betcha My Heart I Love You” and proved that not only is her singing still flawless, but her yodeling is too.
Perhaps just as enjoyable as the songs were Jackson’s stories. The evening had the feel of a Grand Ole Opry show, with the endearingly self-deprecating Jackson introducing each song with a brief (and sometimes not-so-brief) chat about the time in her life when the song was recorded. Her longest story preceded a superb version of “Heartbreak Hotel,” where she told the story of being 17 years old and on her first tour with Elvis Presley, whom at the time she had never heard of. She talked with almost hushed reverence about the King while images of the two were projected behind her.
From one rock star to another, Jackson then chatted about her 2011 collaboration with Jack White, The Party Ain’t Over. Jackson performed two songs from the record, “Shakin’ All Over” and Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” which Jackson admitted she fought against recording, but said the “velvet covered brick” Jack White insisted.
Next up were selections from this year’s Justin Townes Earle-produced Unfinished Business, “Tore Down” and the ballad “Am I Only A Memory?” Incredibly, this was the first time Jackson had slowed the tempo the whole show - it’s possible she had more energy than her audience. She cranked it back up with a blistering version of Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now.”
Then it was back to the classics – she introduced the 1959 song “Fujiyama Mama” as “my first #1 rock and roll song…in Japan,” and noted that 1958’s “Mean, Mean Man” was the first song she ever wrote. “Let’s Have A Party” capped her regular set and as the song wrapped up Jackson said her voice was fading on her; if it was true, it was undetectable by the audience – she sounded as great as she had all night. She took a quick break and returned for an extended encore that had the crowd up and dancing, mashing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’” with Elvis’ “Hard Headed Woman.” It was a fantastic, rocking ending to a remarkable night of music with a living legend.
Jackson’s band, the In-Laws, was borrowed from opener Jonny Fritz (who was better known as Jonny Corndawg before changing his moniker over the summer). Taking the stage in a wonderfully garish Cosby sweater and rocking out “Shaved Like a Razor,” the leadoff track to his underappreciated 2011 album Down the Bikini Line, Fritz and the In-Laws put together a stellar set of chicken-fried alt-country that proved to be the perfect warm-up. The highlight may have been pedal steel player Spencer Callum running a Peter Frampton-type talk box through his instrument, creating some amazing vocal effects. Credit is due to the In-Laws for sounding flawless throughout nearly three hours of music.