Call her what you will -- a showbiz chanteuse, a down-home diva, or simply the epitome of American superstardom. Dolly Parton is an absolutely brilliant entertainer, as suited to the stage as any icon of the modern era. She turns 66 today, January 18, but she still was able to prove her prowess when she performed on the final night of her latest tour this past October at the Hard Rock in Hollywood.
In fact, it summed up everything that makes Dolly so special and spunky. True, she sometimes comes across as Vegas-slick and carefully choreographed. But one would be hard-pressed to find another performer who's able to rouse an audience as effectively from the get-go or to bring them to tears just as easily.
Parton demonstrated that ability the moment she stepped on stage in South Florida. When she emerged from the back of the boards, flanked by her superb eight-piece band and three backing vocalists, she amped up the energy and never let it waver. Taking the tune "Walking on Sunshine," the one-off hit from Katrina and the Waves, as her opening rallying cry, she offered a welcoming shout-out that ratcheted up the adrenalin and roused the crowd.
After 40 years, she's still as folksy and friendly as her humble origins would suggest. Her glitzy costumes (she wore a different sparkly outfit for each of the two sets), hit-laden set list, and well-rehearsed repertoire are clearly the product of seasoned professionalism. But her connection with fans remains every bit as intimate and emphatic as it's always been.
She proved that in her choice of material, from her early solo hit "Jolene" to a heartfelt rendition of the song made famous by Whitney Houston in the film The Bodyguard, "I Will Always Love You." In other words, her show is tailor-made to please her devotees.
Her pithy comments, which are sometimes barbed but mostly self-effacing, frequently turn nostalgic when she offers tender reflections on her East Tennessee origins. A lilting take on another early, biographical hit, "Coat of Many Colors," was positively spell-binding and evoked emotions that rarely surface in a show of that size. And when she followed it with "Appalachian Memories," a song dedicated to her father and her hard-scraped childhood, suffice it to say there was barely a dry eye in the house.
Happily, though, Parton doesn't have to rely strictly on sentiment. Her instrumental workouts were displayed in snippets -- a song that singled out her guitar playing, another with her on banjo, one tune solely on autoharp, even an offering that found her laying out an impressive sax solo (and "feeling saxy!"). Still, her expansive, multimusical talents became all too obvious. Vocally she's always in fine form, and when she sang a cappella, either solo or with her backing vocalists, it was breathtaking to behold.
Fortunately too, she found a way to put all these skills to good use. She integrated several covers throughout her set, including a terrific take on "River Deep, Mountain High," a credible attempt at the Beatles' "Help," an unlikely stab at Counting Crows' "Shine," and a bluegrass version of "Stairway to Heaven" that she claims her husband, a staunch Led Zep fan, labeled "Stairway to Hell."
That kind of humorous commentary is part of her persona. There were some expected comments referencing her dumb blond image ("I know I'm neither dumb... or blond!"). There were also some laughs at the expense of said husband. Commenting on her husband's crush on the woman who inspired "Jolene," she said that seeing him now, asleep on a chair, snoring and with drool coming out of his mouth, Jolene is welcome to come back and claim him.
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Dolly even tried her hand at a rap, as inspired by A Joyful Noise, her aptly titled new film that finds her costarring with Queen Latifah. Ultimately, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Sexy and spunky, Dolly remains one delightful diva.