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Paul Mann: Wanda Jackson Gets the Party Started at El Rey Theatre

The Queen of Rockabilly and Third Man Band rock it out at sold-out showcase concerts in L.A.

Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly, played a pair of sold-out shows Jan. 23-24 at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.

The showcase concerts featured the Third Man Band, led by Jack White, in support of its new album with Jackson, The Party Ain’t Over.

From the minute he stepped on stage to the moment he left, there was no question that White was the master maestro, molding the sound of the Third Man Band into a musical powerhouse. The mercurial musician has reinvented himself time and again, in a vast array of collaborations, but his new endeavor suits him perfectly, showcasing his strongest skills as a masterful and innovative lead guitarist.

The immensely talented 11-piece band features local drummer Joey Waronker from San Luis Obispo and phenomenal pedal steel guitarist Rich Gilbert, as well as a complete horn section and backup singers that Jackson called her cupcakes.

Even with the impressive thundering wall of sound behind her, the 73-year-old Jackson had no problem holding her own as the lead singer, living up to her legacy as the first woman to sing rock-and-roll. The charismatic singer belted out country, gospel and mostly rockabilly tunes from her more than 50-year career.

Although she joked about a senior minute when she forgot a few lines of a song, there was nothing stodgy about her feisty performance, or the memories she would share between songs. “If the King of Rock can have notes, then so can the Queen,” she quipped.

In fact, one of her first tours was as an opening act for Elvis Presley, and the two were briefly linked romantically at the time. But Jackson doesn’t linger long in the past, and she embraces her new mentor, White, with equal feisty passion.

Under White’s tutelage, the band has reworked many of Jackson’s songs into a more contemporary and relevant sound. Elvis was actually credited as dubbing Jackson as the First Lady of Rockabilly. After a string of hits in the 1950s and 60s, Jackson moved into country music, when rockabilly fell out of favor in popular American music.

In the 1970s, she produced another slew of hits, this time in the country and gospel musical world. But in the ‘80s, with the re-emergence of rockabilly, Jackson began returning to her roots. In 2009, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then she met White, and a whole new chapter of her life evolved. The concert featured many of the songs on their new album, with reworked hits coming from all phases of her career, as well as some classic covers. The chemistry between Jackson and White was remarkable. The tiny septuagenarian would bounce, physically and mentally, off of the tall, lanky guitar hero. “He’s a velvet-covered brick,” Jackson quipped about White. “He’s going to get his way, but he does it so sweetly.”

Then the band launched into a raunchy version of “Busted.” The classic “Fujiyama Mama” followed, her first No. 1 hit in Japan in 1959. The first role model as a strong, independent woman in the male-dominated world of rock-and-roll, she became an international star early in her career. Jackson’s mother was credited with developing her fashion style, hand-making her trademark white-fringed, rhinestone-encrusted jackets and short skirts.

When the band launched into Little Richard classic “Rip It Up,” Jackson let her fringe fly while nailing the gritty lyrics.

As the nonstop, 75-minute set came to a close, it was evident that there were three distinctive elements on display during the evening’s rock-and-roll frenzy. First there was the rebirth of the rockabilly career of Jackson. Second was the genius of producer and rock phenom White. And finally, and most importantly, there was a good old-fashioned rock-and-roll road show, encapsulated in Jackson with the Third Man Band.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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