"There's no room to dance!" repeated the girl with the double vodka cranberry beside me. No, there wasn't, and getting to the bar wasn't a cake walk either. Blame Jack White or blame one of the great careers in American music, but the Wanda Jackson show at the Duck Room was packed elbow-to-elbow, from the old-timer seats to the side walls lined with rockabilly fillies.
But a sold out show is as it should be for an audience with the Queen.
At 73 years-regal, Jackson has the highest profile album of her career, The Party Ain't Over, produced by the former guitarist of the White Stripes. Midway through the set, she recounted the story of getting a phone call, not long after her long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. The crowd hung on every word of that story, and all the tales she spun over an 80 minute set of solid gold hits and new material, all delivered with the growl that hasn't lost a tooth of its wickedly playful bite.
Opener Dex Romweber, backed by sister Sara on drums, knew he'd best keep his set concise and focused. Starting promptly at 8 p.m., Romweber let his chunky, over-driven Silvertone guitar do most of the talking, racing through new and bluesy material, and jamming hard on surf instrumentals, as Sara worked all corners of a tom-heavy kit. Romweber is an elemental singer and songwriter; there's no flash or strut in his version of rockabilly and blues, but his big-throated howl is well-suited to the trashy sound.
By 9:26 p.m. Jackson's band of Nashville pros had assembled on stage, warming up with a suite of rock & roll standards - Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley - and then brought on the Queen of Rock & Roll with a few chords from "Rumble." It was a more-than-fitting entrance for Jackson, who jumped right into "Riot in Cell Block #9," leaving a verse or two in the dust. "Don't worry," she said to her band. "I'll catch up." And she did, shaking her rhinestone fringe, pumping her fists at her side, but keeping her phrasing - soaked in reverb but somehow even more visceral and supple than on recent recordings - ever in mind. As she swung into mid '50s hits "Rock Your Baby" and "I Gotta Know," her band tight as a full set of Man Spanx, it was clear that she still knows how to have a blast on stage, even as her movements are cautious and her stories amble about.
But those stories, from reveling in wearing Elvis' ring for a year to the tale behind a particularly salacious album cover to finding Jesus in the '70s (the crowd should have expected that born-again moment, but didn't), were part of what makes a Wanda Jackson show so memorable. She's a survivor, one of the last of the true rock & roll originals. Still, the biggest irony of the evening was simply that, as an icon, she has never quite matched the expectations of her audience. That's our problem; not hers.
Jackson flashed only hints of the wild, quasi-feminist trailblazer, randomly splashing the front row with a bit of water, and digging into the desperation of Eddie Cochran's "Nervous Breakdown." Ultimately, she's as comfortable and effective with country music - that's where she got her start after all - as she is with primal rockabilly. "I don't know if I have the pipes for this tonight," she cautioned before "I Betcha My Heart I Love You." The introduction was just part of the act. She yodeled through every nook and cranny of the song, her voice only breaking softly at the edges. That simple country pop tune was stunning and comic and moving, a highlight that no one could have expected. As the set closed out with "Let's Have a Party" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Jackson made it known that she still is the Queen. Her subjects await her return.