Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It Was a Better Day: A Night with Dolly Parton

Today sucks. Or, less hyperbolic, today just isn't as good as yesterday. Why? Because I know I won't be seeing Dolly Parton in concert tonight. Unlike yesterday, I have no more days to anticipate finally seeing one of my most favourite recording artists of all time in concert. In fact, there's the 99% chance that I'll never get to see her in concert ever again, which is a sad thought, but given it took her something like 25 years between tours, I doubt Australia will be seeing her again on our shores. She is "65" after all! Still, if this is indeed the last time she tours Australia, then I can at least carry on knowing I did get to witness her perform her way through two and a half hours of brilliant music. Boy, was it worth it!

I can't really explain my appreciation for Dolly Parton, but like many it grew out of my love for those immortal songs that soundtracked some great movies and others that have been covered by other artists, which made me seek out the rest of her overflowing discography. Everyone knows "9 to 5" from the soundtrack to the film of the same name, and everyone has heard "Jolene", whether it's by Dolly or any of the many, many other performers who have covered its tale of sluts and sadness. Whether it's "Islands in the Stream" (her duet with Kenny Rogers that was the highest selling single of 1984 in Australia), "I Will Always Love You" (performed as her encore), "Coat of Many Colors" (accompanied by one of Dolly's many heartfelt stories of growing up in Tennessee) or Dolly's exceptional cover of "Stairway to Heaven" (perhaps the greatest cover version by any artist ever), there were more songs in last night's setlist that people knew the words to than you'd probably expect. Especially since Dolly has rarely had a "hit album" in Australia.

I was frequently pleased at some of the songs she sang, like two tracks of her exceptional 1989 album, White Limozeen, hardly one of her most recognisable albums in Australia, and songs like a brief diversion to "Light of a Clear Blue Morning", "Smoky Mountain Memories" and "Little Sparrow", which was surely the concert's highlight as Dolly and her backup singers sang unaccompanied and Parton's voice soared over Rod Laver Arena like you couldn't even imagine. Beautiful, haunting stuff. All of that was in stark contrast to one of the most surreal things I have ever seen: Dolly Parton performing a rap interlude about her Joyful Noise co-star, Queen Latifah. Absolutely hilarious! They were filming last night's concert for an upcoming DVD release, so y'all will get to experience that wild performance at some stage down the line, but until then you can watch it on YouTube in bad shakycam vision. Just know that Joyful Noise surely already has that Best Picture Academy Award wrapped up. It's gonna be magic, I can tell.

The concert started immaculately with two of my top three Dolly tracks! Verses of "Light of a Clear Blue Morning" echoed throughout the arena before Dolly emerged on stage to a barnstorming rendition of "Walking on Sunshine". The latter, a recording from her Treasures album of 1996, is one of the most joyous songs I've ever heard (even moreso than the Katrina and the Waves original). My friend and I (Ben on the right) had gone out for dinner before the concert and I'd told the story of how when I used to have to catch the 5.30am train for work I'd listen to "Light of the Clear Blue Morning" (1992 rendition from the Straight Talk soundtrack) and "Walking in Sunshine" as a way to perk myself up for the glum day ahead, so to hear them side by side at the very start of the concert was like some beautiful, personalised love letter to me (shut up!) She even threw some bits from "Shine Like the Sun", off of the 9 to 5: The Musical Broadway recording! She progressed through tracks like "Help!", "Better Get to Livin'", "Rocky Top", "My Tennessee Mountain Home" and many other amazing odes to Parton's love of her family, home and life in general. Several songs from her latest CD that gave the A Better Day Tour its name, "Better Day" and "Together You and I", were lovely with Dolly taking her place behind a golden glittered piano. Further covers of songs like "Song of a Preacher Man" and "River Deep, Mountain High" were big highlights, too, as were any moments when Dolly found herself playing a new instrument, whether it was a guitar, saxophone, piano, flute (or was it a recorder?) banjo or autoharp. As long as they didn't mess up her hair, she would take everything that comes her way with aplomb.

After intermission - yes, intermission - she had lost none of her energy and, microphone/wig mishap notwithstanding, continued to put on the show I had been so wanting to see. She performed all the songs that my friend and I thought she'd have to sing, including "Here You Come Again" and "Two Doors Down". I could have continued to listen to this woman perform for hours and hours more thought. Oh, sure, I would've loved to have seen her perform "What a Heartache" (originally from the failed Dolly/Sylvester Stallone musical, Rhinestone, which she happily made a few jokes about throughout the night, but the best version is the one from Halos and Horns in 2002), "Eagle When She Flies", "Travelin' Thru", "Peace Train" (the Holy Roller Remix, of course), "The Bargain Store", "Appalachian Memories", "Lonely Coming Down", "Heartbreak Express", "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "He's Alive" amongst many, many others, but when you have a catalogue as robust as Parton's you have to make some concessions. Plus, it's fair enough to assume many in the audience had come to hear her sing her biggest hits, not the personal favourites like the masterful "The Camel's Heart" or "God's Coloring Book". She has something like 50 studio albums, plus soundtrack songs and live recordings, and they'll all live on in whatever technology medium the world adopts in the future, so I'm just glad I got to see her sing anything live. No matter how many time's she's sung these songs and told these stories, you just know the enthusiasm, the heart and the desire to inspire and make people feel damn good is still there.

Maybe for the next tour she can perform the entire soundtrack of Straight Talk.

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