Published Jun 07, 2014Sharon Jones has been told she's too black, too short, too fat, too old and — scariest of all — too sick to do her thing. Yet three days before her six-month checkup and four days before the first anniversary of her most recent operation, here she is. Alive and fierce, loud and fun. Shredding up the stage with her bare feet, tearing down the house with her raw vocals, and rendering the seats in Toronto's Massey Hall rather pointless.
"Six months ago," the 58-year-old soul singer tells her audience during a rare moment of quiet, "didn't know if I'd be here." After being diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer last year and enduring rounds of chemotherapy, Jones' friends, she says, advised her not to throw herself back into the grind of touring so soon after beating cancer (fingers crossed).
"I got to get back," Jones tells the crowd, with conviction. (Granted, nothing that escapes Ms. Jones' mouth lacks conviction.) "I got fans." On cue, they go bonkers. Chemo may have robbed Jones of her hair — those sweaty braids whipped every which way in club shows of growing proportions during her 12-year, late-blooming rampage — but the close-cropped 'do has only made her faster. Getting sick might have made her iller.
The experience was preceded by a tight 45-minute warm-up by Grammy-nominated U.K. singer-songwriter James Hunter. The 51-year-old soulman with a sharp sense of humour and keener knack for his guitar impressed the crowd by his lonesome, generating enough energy with his foot-taps, yelps and chicken clucks that he kept audience attention with a single member of band support. Still, everyone sat — Hunter included — and clapped politely. The floor and balcony are were 95 per cent capacity; the gallery was empty.
Hunter's one-man effort stood in black-and-white contrast to a revue by the Dap-Kings, who walked on stage in various shades of grey suits to the sounds of Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and assumed their positions: three on horns, two handling percussion, two guitarists, one bassist, two backup singers.
"Say good-bye to your seats!" commanded the leader, and the fans — dressed in everything from ratty bowling shirts and shortpants to party dresses and heels; ages eight to "wow, you made it out" — instantly obliged. After a groove was established, the "superbad soul sister" emerged, a glimmering silvery-purple dress competing with shiny bracelets and dangly earrings. "Stranger to My Happiness" kicked off a furious set heavy on tracks from the group's January release, Give the People What They Want. If you've seen them, you know: Jones & the Dap-Kings' records fall firmly into that category of "sounds better live."
So many Sharon Jones shows turn into full-on dance parties, so the furniture at Massey Hall provided a bit of an obstacle. Still, fans shook in the aisles and more than a few were invited onstage to cut a rug. Jones grabbed a dude younger, taller, paler and less coordinated to dance with her. If it's shtick, it works like money. The claps and smiles came like her second LP: Naturally. A troop of audience dancers, ladies, 15 of them, clip-clopped up into the lights for a knockout cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." As they were being escorted off, one of them mentioned it was her birthday. In half of a beat, Jones and the Kings launched into Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday."
It was all very loose and fun and free. For "Retreat!" — her latest jolt of a single — Jones mimicked Tina Turner before kicking off her high-heels and dancing her ass off.
She revived the Jerk, the Pony (and makes it gallop) and the Twist, but "none of that twerk dancing," she piped. In sync with her band, Jones built then smouldered energy, a cycle of sedating and resuscitating that made 80 minutes feel like eight. The sequencing of bangers and ballads was calculated yet invisible.
A crusher of cancer and example of sticking to your dream, Jones was already walking inspiration. On this night, she felt like church. "100 Day, 100 Nights" served as the climax, encored only by the superb "Now I See" and a promise that, "We gonna fill up that third tier next time we come back."
How many times have you read quotes from performers explaining that they feed off the crowd's energy? Ms. Jones is the reverse. Sharon gives us life.
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