Published Jul 05, 2013At 76, Wanda Jackson is still a force to be reckoned with. She's a one-woman encyclopaedia of rock'n'roll history, taking the time to regale each audience with tales from her storied, six-decade-long career that was influenced early on by her former beau, Elvis Presley. Thursday night was no different, when she took the stage at Metropolis as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Performing earlier in the evening was Bettye LaVette, who has herself enjoyed a 50-plus-year career. But while her voice was powerful and beautiful, her set full of slow blues songs left the audience subdued. Considering the only things she has in common with Jackson are that they're both grounded in roots music and they're both getting on in their years, the pairing felt off.
Jackson performs better on her own, anyway. The Queen of Rockabilly returns to Montreal every couple of years with backing band the Lustre Kings, usually playing to a small but devoted and enthusiastic audience. At Metropolis this time around, assigned seating and overzealous security guards put a damper on dancing early on, even sending two ladies back to their seats. That's not how rock'n'roll is meant to be delivered — and that's why by the end of the set, Jackson forbade everyone from sitting.
Still, Jackson owned the stage. First, she looks amazing, particularly after a youth marked by what she described as "wildness." She graduated from high school at 17 in 1955, recorded her first rock'n'roll song, "I Gotta Know," in 1956 and headed out on tour with Presley right away. She performed the song early in the set, showing off a voice that has been remarkably preserved over the years — surprising, considering she's so well-known for the grit in her voice (and the occasional yodel). Finally, her humour, at times self-deprecating — "I had more guts than talent," she said — and interludes of stories about working with musical legends commandeered the attention of the audience.
She went on to play a couple of covers, including Amy Winehouse's "You Know I'm No Good" off her collaboration with Jack White, as well as "Shakin' All Over," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Some of her best-loved originals made appearances: "Fujiyama Mama," "Mean Mean Man" and "Let's Have a Party," among others. In the end, the unusually stringent seating arrangements and mismatched pairing with Bettye LaVette made for a bit of a strange evening but Jackson, as always, shone brightly as an American treasure. I should hope to be so badass when I'm 76.