Does anyone under the age of, say, 73, still believe that rock’n’roll is sinful entertainment? Probably not. But for the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, the Devil’s music was all the more vital — and truly dangerous — for exploiting a very real tension between the earthly body, in all its hip-shaking salaciousness, and more pious obligations to the church.
Jackson, 73, who played her first public gig Friday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with Jack White and his ten-piece Third Man House Band , still exploits that tension. An awkward silence punctuated an otherwise rowdy show as she introduced the country standard “Dust on the Bible” with a few evangelically tinged words concerning “the most important day of my life — and the hereafter.”
The song, whose lyrics she sang with assistance from a sheet of notebook paper, appears on Jackson’s new album, The Party Ain’t Over, which White produced for his Third Man label. White told her the song he chose for her hailed from “the hymnal of the ‘Church of What’s Happening Now.'”
“If it’s good enough for the King,” explained Jackson, who earlier said she’d once seen her ex-boyfriend Elvis do the same thing in Vegas, “it’s good enough for the Queen.”
Clever one-liners aside, Jackson, dressed in a sparkling, fringed white sweater, pretended not to be a seasoned performer who knows very well how to work a crowd. Although she was raised in the South and can play the Okie role to charming double-edged effect (“You all lead busy lives, I’ll say that,” she noted of New Yorkers), she’s been around the world once or twice and has the constantly rediscovered classics (“fast, loud songs about ambivalent carnality,” Nick Tosches called them in Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll) to justify late-career gigs in places like Japan and Sweden. Those she played here included “Funnel of Love,” “Mean Mean Man,” “Have a Party,” and her unlikely Japanese hit, “Fujiyama Mama” (“You can say I’m crazy/ So deaf and dumb/ But I can cause destruction/Just like the atom bomb”).
And the grandmotherly Jackson’s acknowledgment of her limitations — as opposed to the grit and growl of her voice, a sharp instrument as unassumingly dangerous as rusty metal — took what might otherwise have been just another humdrum oldies gig someplace else entirely, as did Jack White’s spastic guitar playing and seat-of-the-pants conducting.
Jackson’s sound still haunts rockabilly revivalists such as Third Man recording artist (and former Flat Duo Jet) Dexter Romweber, who delivered a short yet briskly evocative opening set with his drumming sister, Sara. But it’s a style that’s becoming increasingly difficult to emulate without irony. Jack White rewrites the book with loosey-goosey arrangements for horns, backing singers and steel guitar (all dressed in matching vintage attire) that attempt to recapture the spirit of Sun Records.
And, apart from a technical glitch or two, he mostly succeeds, as during the driving rendition of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ oft-covered “Shakin’ All Over” that closed the show. Indeed, once Jackson’s elderly husband walked her — very slowly — up the stairs leading to the dressing room, it was clear that Elvis’s former girlfriend had left the building.
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