Live review: Dolly Parton at the Hollywood Bowl
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The singer operates with a queenly mettle in an aggressively cheerful concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
Dolly Parton employed the royal “we” so often Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl that when she sat down at one point you half-expected her to land on a throne. In fact, the seat was as humble as the handful of old country songs she performed from it: “Coat of Many Colors,” for which she accompanied herself on autoharp; “Precious Memories,” delivered a cappella; “Tennessee Mountain Home,” with its exactingly drawn description of “a straight-back chair on two legs leaned against the wall.”
Yet throughout this aggressively cheerful concert — the second of two at the venue she referred to as “the Dollywood Bowl” — Parton operated with a queenly mettle that spoke to her five-decade journey from Appalachian hardship to Nashville aristocracy. She hardly required a throne to establish her position of power.
Nor, evidently, did she need to engage in an act now below her station — namely, singing live. Parton, 65, appeared to lip-sync large portions of Saturday’s 2 1/2-hour show, most noticeably when the tempo climbed above a rootsy shuffle, as in an aerobic rendition of “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & the Waves or in “Together You and I,” a spirited pop-country tune from “Better Day,” Parton’s lovable new studio album. Later, near the end of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” she strapped on a saxophone and delivered a solo that felt like the precise musical equivalent of the blond wig she’d admitted to wearing earlier; the sound, it seemed, came from someone, just not the body to which it was attached.
Whether this apparent legerdemain presented a problem depends upon your expectations for a Dolly Parton concert in 2011. Although she spent the late ’90s and early ’00s making a series of relatively austere bluegrass records, Parton long ago effected her transformation from a chops-oriented musician into a full-service entertainer, one no less interested in stage patter and physical comedy than in singing and playing. (As it happens, Parton’s vaudeville-style approach might actually connect her to a cultural tradition older than those espoused by such old-timey fetishists as Alison Krauss and the Avett Brothers. But let’s leave that matter to the comment-section cognoscenti, shall we?) At the Bowl, Parton introduced several numbers with ostensibly improvised monologues as long (and as appealingly specific) as the songs themselves. Sometimes her banter improved upon the music; other times it didn’t. “I’m feeling sax-y!” she crowed after that maybe-solo in “Son of a Preacher Man.” Either way, you felt like you were getting all there was to get of Dolly Parton; she wasn’t limiting herself to a prescribed set of her talents.
And when she did downgrade the charm offensive, Parton offered proof that she hasn’t lost the initial instrument of her reign. Sandwiched between the new album’s chipper “In the Meantime” and a frantic “River Deep — Mountain High,” “Little Sparrow” — which the singer appeared to perform live along with two of her backup vocalists — was a haunting bit of goth-folk seriousness right when you least expected it. For once we were not amused, to paraphrase Queen Victoria, and that seemed like Parton’s goal.
-- Mikael Wood
Photos: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles