I saw Dolly Parton live in concert last night. Well, I guess it was her. From my lower-level seat halfway between the stage and the rafters at Sacramento’s ARCO Arena, what I actually saw was a blond wig atop a tiny, expressive, top-heavy body. I never did get to see the face. Given the size of the venue, I had assumed that there would be video screens to bring the action closer to us poor saps off in the distance. Wrong. Still, to Parton’s credit, I never felt like a forgotten observer.
The show began shortly after the 8pm start time with “Two Doors Down.” As the band made its entrance, some sections of fans back in the boondocks began cheering for one of the back-up singers who (from a distance) bore a resemblance to Parton. Oops, false alarm. The band started playing and, moments later, the real Dolly made her appearance from underneath some sort of funnel-like curtain that was whisked upward to reveal her at center stage. It was an entrance befitting one of the reigning queens of country music.
Parton kept things mostly up-tempo for the first half hour. Early highlights included fan favorite “Jolene” and the autobiographical mission statement “Backwoods Barbie,” a song which does for her what “Man in Black” did for Johnny Cash. This early part of the show featured a number of cover songs – John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” Little Jimmy Dickens’ “I’m Little But I’m Loud,” and an especially well-received version of the Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy,” which she recorded on Backwoods Barbie.
When she tried slowing things down, the results were mixed. While the classic “Coat of Many Colors” was affecting, the obscure album cut “Only Dreamin’” seemed to drag on interminably, creating the first real lull in the show. The crowd’s restlessness was almost palpable, and the perfectly enjoyable gospel medley that followed didn’t quite manage to pull them out of their funk. Intermission came just in the nick of time, although not before the sixtysomething couple seated beside me quietly slipped out. Maybe it was just their bedtime.
While we’re at intermission, here are some random musings:
– Dolly’s stage banter often seems rehearsed, but the audience eats it right up, so why not? It seems to be working for her. Some of the biggest reactions of the night were to her jokes, not her songs.
– Still, the boob jokes started getting old after a while. One or two of the later ones even fell flat. No pun intended.
– Being a musician in Dolly’s band is a pretty low-profile gig. Every time there’s space for a solo, Dolly takes it. She probably played close to 10 different instruments over the course of 2 hours.
– I’ve read some reports of her declining voice, but I didn’t hear proof of it on Monday. Her voice has changed in the past 40 years, of course, but not for the worse. She still sounds great.
Okay, back to the show.
We reconvened about 20 minutes later for another hour of music. This part of the show included two of her recent singles, “Better Get to Livin’” and “Shinola.” “Better Get to Livin’” got a surprisingly spirited reaction from the crowd and had some singing along as though it were one of her big ’80s pop hits. Parton’s explanation that the next song was called “You Don’t Know Love From Shinola” earned peals of laughter from the largely gray-haired crowd. My reservations about the dated product reference aside, the song actually came off very well.
Parton’s melodious voice was on full display in slower songs like “The Grass is Blue” and “Little Sparrow” (the latter given a particularly dramatic reading) and a barbershop-style vocal arrangement of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind” done with her ‘brothers’ from the band. For my money, Dolly is at her best when she keeps it simple and puts her voice and her songwriting right out front. Such moments, taken collectively, formed my favorite part of the show.
Eventually, Parton had to give the crowd what they wanted most – a four-pack of the big, pop-oriented numbers for which she is best known, culminating in the show-closing “I Will Always Love You.” This portion of the show had the audience at its rowdiest. One woman near me was jerking her arms around in the air in a manner which suggested some combination of fist-pumping Springsteen fan, drunken conductor, and epileptic seizure. Parton returned for a mostly unnecessary encore, as some of the crowd was already filing out and “Jesus and Gravity” can’t exactly top one of the best love songs ever. But who’s going to complain about one more song from a legend? The overwhelming sentiment of the night seemed to be: whatever Dolly’s dishing out, we’ll take it.
Two Doors Down
Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That
Thank God I’m a Country Girl
I’m Little But I’m Loud
Drives Me Crazy
Coat of Many Colors
Gospel medley –
– – Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show
– – I’ll Fly Away
– – When the Saints Go Marching In
– – Old Time Religion (?)
– – Calm on the Water (?)
– – Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man
– – Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show (reprise)
Baby, I’m Burnin’
Better Get to Livin’
The Grass is Blue
Great Balls of Fire (Richard Dennison)
Do I Ever Cross Your Mind
Here You Come Again
Islands in the Stream (with Richard Dennison)
9 to 5
I Will Always Love You
ENCORE: Jesus & Gravity
(?) I sort of blacked out (not really) during the medley and creatively filled in these two based on a fairly similar setlist from one of her past shows. Corrections are welcome.