Live review: Wanda Jackson at the El Rey Theatre

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Jack White is a gifted guitarist obsessed with elusive morsels of rock’s past -- archeological evidence of the music’s soul. Having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, Wanda Jackson is officially a living, yodeling piece of history. Almost 40 years (and a good 18 inches) separate them. Yet while the statuesque guitarist stands literally heads and shoulders above the diminutive singer, onstage Sunday at the El Rey, the pair was evenly matched.

The show launched ‘The Party Ain’t Over,’ Jackson’s new album. On the White-produced disc, the 73-year-old sometime country and gospel singer returns to the musical form that Elvis Presley, her then-boyfriend, first nudged her toward, in the mid-'50s: rockabilly. On Sunday, White -- known for his bands the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather -- proved to be a skilled taskmaster.


He led an 11-piece band of youngish talents, including drummer Joey Waronker, bassist Olivia Jean and pedal steel player Rich Gilbert, through rollicking versions of Jackson’s old hits and new tunes. The septuagenarian singer held forth center stage, relishing her comeback with a charming mix of feisty come-on and self-confessed senior moments.

A true raconteur, Jackson amused the crowd with tales of Presley and White, the charismatic, genius sex symbols who book-end her career. “He’s a velvet-covered brick,” she said of White. “He’s going to get his way, but he does it so sweetly.” Before playing the classic lament “Busted,” she pointed out that she’d seen Elvis play in Vegas, then fluttered a piece of paper: “If the King of Rock can have notes, so can the Queen.”

Who could begrudge a few cheat sheets to a woman whose Oklahoma keen and sexy shoulder shimmy remain undiminished? Singing slightly ribald songs such as “Fujiyama Mama” and “Let’s Have a Party” and sporting short skirts, Jackson blazed a trail for women by being her own strong character, not a Vaseline-lensed fantasy. That spark burned undimmed at the El Rey. Seeing Western swing bands in the ‘50s, with “the pretty girls up there singing in their sparkly outfits,” inspired her to be a musician, she said. Then she tore into “Rip It Up,” a song made famous by Little Richard, shaking the white fringes on her rhinestone-laden jacket.

Seemingly enjoying his new role as swing leader, White was a tight-lipped force of nature. “I’m just trying to step out of his way,” Jackson joked when White affectionately leaned against her after a particularly rousing stomp through “Nervous Breakdown.” Looking increasingly like Johnny Depp portraying Jon Spencer, he pushed the band through tight, juicy arrangements, then took a pedal to the cliched rockabilly rave-up guitar lead and ripped it a new chamber. The siren and ax man shared mischievous smiles on their cover of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”

In 2004, White worked with another country legend, Loretta Lynn. The multimillionaire maverick performs these acts of reclamation not so much out of nostalgia for what was, but on a search for what still is. Half a century after the King first anointed her, Jackson is still very much the First Lady of Rockabilly.

-- Evelyn McDonnell