Since her debut in 1967, Dolly Parton has released nearly 50 albums in total, appeared in hit movies, hosted numerous TV series and — as sure as God makes little green apples — wouldn’t be embarking on yet another epic world tour that brings her to Newcastle, Eng., on a Saturday night if she didn’t still love making music and appearing in front of her fans.
This was the first time my wife had been to a Dolly Parton concert and her eyes were out on stalks during the short walk from the car to the Arena, as we passed look-a-likes (female and male) covering every era of the singer’s history. Those not in fancy dress all appeared to be wearing neon pink cowboy hats. It was going to be “one of those nights”, I told her.
I had to watch the start from the sound desk at the rear of the hall, as I was photographing the gig (songs 2 and 3 only), which made it interesting. I got to see the look of excitement and anticipation up close on the faces of 99 percent of the women as they took their seats (multiple drinks in hand), and noted that there were often three generations paying homage to the undisputed Queen of Country Music.
The lights went down at 8:09 and the roar that greeted Dolly — in her white rhinestone dress and heels — as she entered the centre of the stage, was actually quite scary. With a huge grin on her face, she greeted her adoring fans as birdsong twittered in the background. The band eased into “Baby I’m Burning”, while a series of album covers appeared on the huge screens, showing Dolly looking, strangely, younger today than when she recorded with Porter Wagoner.
Now playing a white rhinestone-encrusted acoustic guitar, the ever-smiling songstress launched into “Why’d You Come in Here (Looking Like That)?” which I didn’t recognise. But, the classy country song had the rows in front of me singing along with gusto. The party really got started, however, with “Jolene”, which had thousands of mobile phones waving in the air trying to record the event.
I had to leave my camera bag with security in the foyer, then make my way back to the side of the stage to find my seat and my wife. By the time I took my seat, Dolly was being joined by singers Jen and Vicky before blowing the opening notes to Bob Dylan’s iconic “Don’t Think Twice” on a harmonica. The song is actually one of the highlights of the new album and sounded as fresh as a daisy tonight. It was even countrier than I expected, although it wasn’t especially well-received by the bulk of the audience, who, it was to prove later, were only here for the hits.
The next 40 minutes included a mixture of old and new songs, with some working better than others. The unaccompanied “Precious Memories” was beautiful but spoiled by loud chattering and numerous women feeling the effects of the two-pint beer mugs, making clumsy trips to the toilets.
It was a similar story when she sang the poignant “Coat of Many Colours”, which is quite possibly the greatest country song ever. It encompasses everything that we love about this type of music. But, sadly, too many fans just wanted to sing and dance.
With barely time to take a breath, Dolly rattled through her songs with nothing lasting more than three minutes, apart from her introductions which, while well told, lasted longer than the songs themselves.
During the quaint “Rocky Top”, Dolly played the opening chords on a rhinestone-encrusted banjo (do you see a theme developing?) before being joined by two band members also playing banjos. Sadly this “duel” only lasted a few glorious seconds, and prompted the reviewer sitting next to me to whisper that he “didn’t think her instruments were actually plugged in.”
Now I’m a cynical old soul myself and I doubt that Ms. Parton is a world-beating multi-instrumentalist. I’m also a Believer and think she does always play the opening chord before using the guitar/banjo/auto-harp/harmonica or organ as a prop. But, even I have my doubts that was Dolly playing the Benny Hill theme on her (rhinestone encrusted) saxophone!
The first set ended at 9:20 with a God-fearing “Lay Your Hands on Me” and a gospel-ish “Blue Smoke”, from the new album, that had the Arena rocking like a Pentecostal church. Hallelujah sister — hallelujah!
During the 20-minute break, four young women celebrating a Hen night sat behind me and asked if it was “all right to dance”, as others had complained about their behaviour. I agreed — the girls were no bother and as sweet as pie, albeit drunk and intent on having a good time, which can often be to the detriment of other music fans. That was exactly what happened to me when they insisted I dance too, later on.
Still, for the second half of the concert, Dolly appeared with a red sparkly outfit with breaches, that was last fashionable when the Partridge Family were on TV. She surprised us all with a Countrified “You Drive Me Crazy”, which was a hit for the Fine Young Cannibals back in 1988. Then she confused the audience by describing the next song and everyone thought it was going to be “9 to 5” but was actually “White Limousine” — one of the highlights of the evening for me.
As I said earlier, the majority of the audience wanted up-tempo party songs, so the chattering and toilet runs combined to nearly spoil Dolly’s beautiful version of “Banks of the Ohio”, which was turned into a murder ballad that would have made the Handsome Family proud.
As the applause died down, Parton actually asked the audience to “take some time to listen to the next song”, and the majority obliged, allowing her voice, with only the help of two other singers, to fill the cavernous arena during an amazing rendition of “Little Sparrow.”
The next few songs were only notable for the squabbling going on around me, with a group of drunk women wanting to dance and sing (shout), much to the annoyance of the people around them. It took two songs for security to react and another to actually eject them.
As the pace picked up, and the show rocked to a climax, I and Lee (my fellow reviewer) were now cajoled into dancing to “Here You Come Again” by the Hen Party Girls, much to the amusement of my wife! This was followed by “Islands in the Stream”, when I actually found my feet shuffling with absolutely no help from my brain.
Finally, the fans got what they’d been waiting for and roared their approval during the opening bars of “9 to 5”. The place went wild. What’s so special about this bloody song? It’s hardly one of her best, but 9,998 others disagreed as they partied like it was 1989.
The ever-smiling Dolly waved her goodbyes and was led behind a curtain while the band played on, only to return without the charade of being called back for an encore. After she thanked everyone this side of the Mississippi, the opening bars of the finale got an even louder approval rating before Dolly sang the hell out of “I Will Always Love You”, accompanied by a choir of fans. By the end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house, as she finally bade one last goodbye at 10:40 — over two hours w0rth of music under her belt.
A good — no, great — night was had by all, with fans of all persuasions getting to hear their favourite songs sung by their favourite singer.