Last Tuesday night at 9:30 Club was like a trip back in time to an alternate reality. Wanda Jackson and Imelda May brought the spotlight back to the ’50s—at least for the evening. They took us on a cross-generational ride, DeLorean style, to the roots of rock and roll music: rockabilly. And it was a damn good time.
Imelda May, who opened up for Ms. Jackson, is a Dublin-born throwback to the heyday of rockabilly. She had an edge more intimidating than a six-blade knife. With her four-piece band, May commanded the stage with feline intensity. She switched guitar for tambourines, tambourines for bodhrán and back to guitar. Her jazzy vocals set the crowd on fire and the band, well, they played hard like dirty kids in a sandbox.
It was hard to tell if any of them were breaking a sweat on stage. Al Gare, the upright bassist, looked as if he was tangoing with it. He plucked the instrument with a joyful fury and then slapped over and over to delight of the 9:30 crowd. The drummer, Steve Rushton, almost brought me to my knees. He tore through his kit like a caged animal. His solo was so good, it sounded as if he created chords through a stream of bass, snare, and hi-hat rhythms. And, yes, there was a guy playing salt-shakers—Dave Priseman—who would trade them in for hard-bopping flugel sets.
Ms. May had us hoopin’ and hollerin’ for the last few songs, and it just got even wilder in there. She got us geared up between songs when did her shout-out to “Wanda Jackson!” By that time—with Gare’s buzz haircut, Priseman’s shrugged salt-shaking gestures and Imelda May’s curlicue hairdo—we could’ve been extras in a Dick Tracy reboot.
When Wanda Jackson came onto center stage, the allure of the raucous band diminished. But not in a bad way: the Queen had entered the building!
Ms. Jackson is a spry 73-year-old songstress with the same baby-voiced vocals she had as a teenager touring with Bill Thompson a half-century ago. She wore her trademark white fringe jacket and black bouffant hairdo. Ms. Jackson got us all riled up with some rockabilly standard, then cooled us off by saying, “Before I did rock and roll, I did a little country.”
Wanda Jackson took us way back to the golden age of Appalachian blues. In the spirit of a honky-tonk blues woman, Ms. Jackson sang of heartbreak and hope to a new wave of fans.
There was some history shared Tuesday evening, too. Wanda got her start in rockabilly by way of Elvis Presley. She spent a moment sharing how she, Presley, and the rockabilly sound came to be. She dated Elvis and fondly reminisced on his storied pep talk that encouraged her to explore the new sound. Then the band started up, accompanying Ms. Jackson with some familiar Elvis tunes, like “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Ms. Jackson eulogized another, more recently fallen star: Amy Winehouse. There was bit of creepy coincidence behind this moment and the soul singer’s death. Jackson recorded a cover of “You Know I’m No Good” on her latest album, The Party Ain’t Over. Like the Elvis segment, Ms. Jackson fancied us with a live tribute to Winehouse.
Wanda Jackson’s range of musical styles is manifold. Since the release of The Party she attributes her new exploits to Jack White. White produced that entire album, including the Bob Dylan cover “Thunder on the Mountain.” It was endearing when she spoke of White. Jackson and White’s initial connection was Hollywood-meet-cute. Describing the White Stripes’ front man as a “velvet brick” in another between-song anecdote, Ms. Jackson then sang more from her latest record.
The 9:30ers got a little bit of religion, too, with some familiar gospels pieces they gleefully sang along to.
There was not a single long face in the house that night. Folks either knew lyrics or just swayed with the music. Her flirtations with the crowd were darling. And when her manager (and husband) came on stage at the end of show, took her hand and escorted her off it was clear that she is, in fact, royalty. Or, grateful. Actually… I’d say both.