Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Dolly Parton At the Wang Theater

Until Tuesday night (6/21, the first full day of summer and the anniversary of my Mom's death) at Boston's Wang Theater, I had never seen Dolly Parton.  And this was HIGH on my personal list of "have never seen" grievances.  I mean come on, she's got to be in the top 10 of the list of great American [music] writers of my generation, and even higher on the list of ones I think are great.  She's had 25 #1 hits in her life, and has written a bunch of songs I would put in my top 100.  Coat Of Many Colors, To Daddy, Down From Dover, Jolene, My Tennessee Mountain Home ... she writes the real country blues.

Anyway, time to stop gushing and to say that she announced a North American tour this summer that she says herself is the most extensive she's done in 25 years.  I don't remember her ever coming to the Northeast.  She announced a date in Tanglewood and one at Bangor's riverside amphitheater early on (both too far away for me), but then said she'd be adding dates drip by drip and agonizingly was not coming any closer to Boston.  Finally she announced a date at the Wang and I jumped on the opportunity to get tickets, as did a lot of others apparently, since the best seats I could get were third row in the balcony (behind the first rows of the balcony, which is called the mezzanine at the Wang).  Whatever, they were fine seats and we were psyched!

Drove into the city after work on a Tuesday and we walked through the crowded Common in beautiful early summer down to Jacob Wirth's, where we realized we were a little tired of it.  Had a nice meal despite that and then walked around the block and snuck in the back way to the Wang, which had people pouring in, many dressed in their best cheap country glamour.  Found our seats, got a beer, stared at the over the top theater (just like Dolly!), and then the show started.

Signs warned us that haze and smoke would be used in the performance, and there were several other artifices used, such as a drum machine and a taped chorus on one song, and a teleprompter that blocked off part of our view.  In some situations I would find these things objectionable or hokey, but Dolly was so up front about it, telling us at length how a drum machine (used on 4-5 of the songs only) was cheaper than bringing along a drummer, joking about her costumes and enhancements, and telling us, "But this is what you wanted to see, right?"  She was right.  And what's not artificial about the electric guitar filters, light shows, and sampling/looping we would hear and dig at rock shows?

And one of the great things was that the whole theater was a rainbow parade of horny heterosexuals, demure women who really wanted to be like Dolly, and gay guys who thought she was fabulous, as well as some people like me who think she's a plumb musical genius.  She was definitely whacked with the song stick (and the show-person stick) early in life and represents a great story of a woman singer persevering and conquering in a male-dominated world.  And that's not to mention her parents, whom she spoke of many times: an illiterate father and a mother married at 15 and with 12 kids by 30 who encouraged her daughters and sons to be themselves.  That's America.

So she came out from a gauzy haze to great applause, wearing a white jumpsuit with many rhinestones, white heels, and see-through calves.  They did a really short "Hello Dolly!" introduction and then she jumped right into her first song.  She did two sets and here's the first:
  • Hello Dolly
  • Train, Train
  • Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That
  • Jolene
  • Pure & Simple
  • Precious Memories
  • My Tennessee Mountain Home
  • Coat of Many Colors
  • Smoky Mountain Memories
  • Applejack
  • Rocky Top/Yakety Sax
  • Banks of the Ohio
  • Medley: American Pie / If I Had a Hammer / Blowin' In the Wind / Dust In the Wind / The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
  • The Seeker
  • I'll Fly Away
The show was precisely orchestrated, and the setlist was almost identical to what she's been playing at other stops on the tour.  She was accompanied by a small band: Richard Dennison on keyboards (mostly a grand piano), organ, percussion, and vocals; Tom Rutledge on electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass, double-bass, banjo, and vocals; and Kent Wells on lead electric/acoustic guitars, bass, and vocals.  It was really amazing how many instruments each played and how agilely they switched between them on every song.  They even had a riser set up for the absent drummer ("He's at home in Nashville, trying to figure out how to remove a rhinestone-encrusted high heel from his be-hind"), and Kent popped up over there at times for variety.

But all eyes were on Dolly and she sure showed her versatility, opening on acoustic and killing it on Jolene.  Her stage manager then wheeled out a "throne" for her to sit on and she accompanied herself with dulcimer on My Tennessee Mountain Home, autoharp on Coat Of Many Colors, and recorder on Smoky Mountain Memories.  The throne was wheeled offstage and she got out the fiddle for Applejack and then a small saxophone(!) for Rocky Top.  This was amazing.

Highlights of the set for me musically were her band's country funk on Why'd You Come In Here, her guitar on Jolene (as mentioned), her incredibly tasteful dulcimer on Tennessee Mountain Home, and her vocals!!  My Dog, she is ethereal in her down-home way.  Her headset mike was not set right for the first few songs (she's been playing a mix of venues and it showed), but then they got that right and she showed us the power.  Smoky Mountain Memories would have floored me if I wasn't sitting down and packed in like a sardine, she wrung the emotion and horror out of the traditional Banks Of the Ohio in two short verses (how did she do that?), and of course some of the classic songs she sang were beyond being emotional touchstones.

The band joined her for the crowd-pleasing country-pop medley, and then she wound down with a couple more songs and then strutted off stage for the break, showing off her enhancements of course, as she had at orchestrated times.  The announcer warned us the break would be only 20 minutes, but that was enough time for a quick beer and bathroom break.  There were many people wandering around that theater with huge smiles and not a negative sentiment could be heard.

Back for the second set and she came out with a black fringe skirt and tight white top, strumming an electric guitar!  She even ripped off a lead on the first song, as if we didn't know already that this woman had it together.  Here's the second set:
  • Baby, I'm Burning
  • Outside Your Door
  • The Grass Is Blue
  • Those Memories of You
  • Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
  • Little Sparrow
  • Two Doors Down
  • Here You Come Again
  • Islands in the Stream
  • 9 to 5
This was a shorter set, but she mostly stuck to the hand-held mike and took over with her singing, as a great vocalist will do.  Her stage manager wheeled out a white grand piano with gauzy drapes for The Grass Is Blue, which is one of her best songs.  She was humble enough to point out that Norah Jones had done it better than she can, "But it's my song!"  She then hammered it out and showed that though Norah may be more precise, Dolly can country-croon like you wouldn't believe.

The band clustered around one mike for her mini-set of songs done by The Trio (her, Emmylou, and Linda Ronstadt in the 80s ... which will be re-released with 20 extra tracks this Fall(!)).  And probably the moment of the night that will most stay with me is her singing along with the boys but DOMINATING on one of her most excellent songs ever, Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.  She then laughed and told how they'd worked that out on the bus and, to stave off boredom, then did a "33 at 78 rpm" version of it that was hilarious chipmunk squeaks.

OK, the moment of the night was perhaps the next one.  She took the hand-held mike over to the side of the stage, told us she was going to bring us all down, and then sang an a capella version of Little Sparrow that brought chills up your back.  This was serious, this was the country blues straight from a master.

OK, time for the rocking, good-time end to the show.  Two Doors Down was perhaps the first song of hers that made me really consider her a musician rather than a novelty act and I was very glad to hear that one.  She had to do Here You Come Again, Islands In the Stream (a BeeGees song), and then 9 To 5, which had everyone singing along.  Talk about an anthem for the people!  Not many of us really work in coal mines, especially in Boston.

Dolly did the old person's (she's 70) nod to walking off stage, waiting for the applause, and coming our for an encore.  That is, she walked to the back of the stage, folded her arms, and then made a show of re-entering ... we all got it, she was almost done.  As soon as she said "Whitney" the crowd went nuts and then she did possibly her greatest hit (though that was Whitney Houston's cover), I Will Always Love You.  She did not leave any of her vocal power on the shelf for this one, it was magnificent.

Dolly strutted offstage with a "See y'all next time!" (we can only hope so), and the band did a last few turns of the chorus and then hit the bricks themselves.  Long tour still to come for these guys.

We headed out of there quickly ourselves, along with a crowd as stunned by the excellence of the evening as I've ever seen.  This concert was so many things in a heady mix.  We were out of there and back up the hill through the Common soon, then home and to bed before midnight.  What a show!


  1. Dolly also played the banjo on one song. She would have played the kitchen sink if it had been in tune.

    1. Her stage manager was also proffering a silver ukelele at one point, but I don't remember her playing it.