Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson brings mid-century heartland to 9:30 Club

By Chris Klimek
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 7:48 PM

By the time Wanda Jackson was the age Miley Cyrus is now, she'd already had her own radio show, scored a Top 10 country hit and was dating a still-skinny Elvis Presley. The future King encouraged the fresh-out-of-high-school Jackson to try her voice at rockabilly because girls weren't singing that music yet, and she could be the first.

Most of the crowd that filled the 9:30 Club to near-capacity late Friday night for Jackson's 70-minute headlining set probably knew that story about Elvis already. But they still cheered when she dutifully recounted it before performing "Baby, Let's Play House" and "Heartbreak Hotel." Similarly determined audience swoons attended nearly all the dozen other tunes she wailed and croaked her way through, drawn mostly from her Eisenhower-era heyday.

Only two, including a spooky take on Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good," appear on "The Party Ain't Over," her new album produced by Jack White. If the record isn't as inspired as "Van Lear Rose," the one White midwifed for Jackson's contemporary, Loretta Lynn, in 2004, it's at least a fresh gateway to Jackson's music - a gutsy, greasy strain of seminal heartland rock-and-roll to which any White Stripes fan is probably susceptible. "Most of you are younger than my kids," Jackson marveled, thanking the audience profusely.

The activity spike of touring her first album of new material in eight years initially seemed to have gotten her down. After the opening "Mean Mean Man," she apologized for "some squeaky stuff" in her voice but powered through evergreens such as "Funnel of Love" and "I Gotta Know" on pure moxie, resting her pipes between tunes by giving each one a detailed introduction, including the year of its release. If her boxed set hadn't already come out, you'd have thought she was dictating the liner notes. But her banter is almost as enjoyable as her singing, and it makes just as fine a delivery system for Jackson's inimitable attitude, which pairs a seductive smile with a balled-up fist.

Case in point: When the frontman of her backing band, the Albany rockabilly four-piece The Lustre Kings, handed Jackson a tumbler of red wine, she praised its voice-healing properties and drank heartily. But woe to the dude who brought her a glass of water. "Did I ask for that?" she bristled. "Honey, I don't want it." The water-bringer tried to slink off as discreetly as he'd come, but she summoned him back to soften the reprimand with a kiss on the cheek. She's a sweetheart, but don't cross her.

Klimek is a freelance writer.

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