[See also “9 Reasons Wanda Jackson Rules Rockabilly and Beyond” and more photos in Timothy Norris' slideshow “Wanda Jackson feat. Jack White @ El Rey”.]
What: Wanda Jackson (feat. Jack White)
Where: El Rey
Wanda Jackson has had three major men in her life–Elvis, Jesus, and Jack White–well, four, counting her ever-loving husband, Wendell. You can't really top that. More than fifty years ago, Elvis took country singing Jackson under his wing, taught her rock and roll, and awakened the signature growl that defines her strange, almost cartoonish voice. Jesus came a-knockin' next and Wanda Jackson spent a few decades following his spiritual lead. Now this 73-year old woman stands on El Rey's stage flirting with Jack White, and who else could call him a “velvet covered brick” without sounding like a hussy?
She was referring to his studio ethic, not what's in his South Paradiso leather pants. After finally being inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame two years ago, the Queen of Rockabilly received a call from Jack White. She wasn't too familiar with his bands the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, or the Dead Weather, but thought it was sweet he hung her poster on his wall as a teenager. As with Elvis and Jesus, she trusted White's vision for her voice, which he captured on her new album, The Party Ain't Over, eleven covers White selected ranging from Little Richard to Amy Winehouse.
El Rey's red curtain opened to reveal the Third Man Records House Band dressed in pink and black swing-goth formalwear: two bassists, a lap steel player, a saxophone, a trombone, a trumpet, a keyboard, a drum, and two backup singers Jackson called her “cupcakes.” She said, “one's a twinkie, one's a ding-dong.” The band teased “Shakin' All Over” as Jack White rambled on stage and introduced the thick sound of his guitar. Moving from one side to the other, this leader directed his band like a mad scientist or a magician, using his guitar and thrusting his limbs like he was in Fantasia commanding his brooms where to sweep and how loudly.
Wanda Jackson was so excited to get on stage, she almost fell over. This woman is so small, even with the three inches her hair adds to her height, she barely reaches Jack White's nipples. Being a traditional performer, Jackson had funny things prepared to say between every song, yet her mistakes and “senior moments” were perhaps the most endearing. At one point during “You Know I'm No Good,” after Jack had come up and danced on her, she lost her place in the song and missed a verse. She turned, held up her hands to Jack as if to say, “What now?” and he slid over to her with Pinocchio movements, trying to mouth her the words. Unsure what he was saying, she eventually faded back in as if the volume were turning up on her voice.
Another good moment came towards the end when she ripped into a growling note and the band started playing something else. White stopped the band and she says to him, “That's the way the song starts!” He replied, “No…” chuckling a bit. She reset without hesitation and launched into the correct beginning of one of her founding hits, “Let's Have A Party.”
The evening also included Jackson gems “Riot In Cell Block #9,” “Fujiyama Mama,” which made her a star in Japan, her first song “Mean Mean Man,” the love ballad “Right Or Wrong,” which she originally wrote for Brenda Lee, and the ever-so-beautiful and most misspelled classic, “Funnel Of Love” (so you know where to look, it appears on many karaoke machines as “Tunnel Of Love”). She yodeled a bit, and, of course, emitted catty growls, but one other particularly wonderful thing emerges from her voice on long “O” or “A” sounds, as she vibrates her vocal chords like rattling knees. Perhaps White had this quality in mind when he selected “Shakin' All Over” as the opening track on her record.
What makes Wanda Jackson great is everything that is beautiful about music, especially the early rockabilly from the 1950s. There's an innocence about the world of music as we know it crawling out from primordial ooze. This quality inspires Jack White's greatness as well. He keeps country and blues at the foundation of every experiment, at least his best ones, and Wanda Jackson might be the most important project he's done.
It took way too long for Jackson to be recognized as a musical pioneer, as if her music were still too rebellious for a woman to gain mainstream notice. But if Elvis, Jack White, and Jesus believe in this special lady and her homemade fringe dresses, it's about time the rest of the world caught on.