I’ve been going to concerts long enough to have seen it all, and you probably have too — all the hits, none of the hits, tight and well paced, rambling and nonsensical, mind-boggling production values, zero production, smoking band, canned backing tracks, barely 70 minutes, two-and-a-half hours, you get the idea. The best concerts are the ones where great veteran singers you’ve followed for years dig deep and don’t give the impression they’re just punching the clock.
Dolly Parton’s astoundingly generous sold-out Wolf Trap show last night — the D.C.-area stop of her “Better Day World Tour” — found her doing anything but going through the motions. While she could have easily gotten away with a 90-minute sprint through her hits, the 65-year-old country queen continues to push the boundaries of what her live show can entail. After a decade-long absence from the road, she got back to proper touring with the bare-bones 2002 “Halos & Horns” theater tour (it played a packed 9:30 Club that year) and has gotten more generous and elaborate with each outing since. Last night’s show was longer, yet tighter and more focused than her last outing, the 2008 “Backwoods Barbie Tour,” which played the Patriot Center. Parton has gleaned her concerts to a spit shine more on a par with Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban’s shows than anyone in her generation, many of whom are playing fairgrounds if they’re out at all.
Nobody’s spirits seemed dampened by the deadening heat. Parton commented several times on it and the bugs her stage lights attracted. One encounter with a mothra she joked was as big as the “Little Sparrow” she’d just sung about, gave the show some of its funniest, least-scripted moments. The packed lawn, as is typical for Dolly shows, was populated with a curious-but-refreshing mix of queers and bumpkins.
As is typical for her, there was no opening act and Parton started right on the dot of 8. She opened with a rousing cover of Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” from her ’96 “Treasures” album. It was a sign of things to come on two fronts — the sunny, upbeat feel of nearly the whole evening (also a recurring theme on the new album) and the bounty of covers, several of which Parton has never recorded, including well-chosen pop stalwarts like Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” the Beatles’ “Help” and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” Though she left out verses of each, Collective Soul’s “Shine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” both of which she has recorded, worked well in a mini bluegrass set.
The big hits, while always a blast to hear, came in faithful arrangements and were programmed in almost the same slots as they were last time out, from “Jolene” and “Coat of Many Colors” in the first set to a closing romp-through of “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream,” “9 to 5” and the encore, “I Will Always Love You.” Of the new material, first single “Together You and I,” power duet “Holding Everything” and determination ode “The Sacrifice” translated best to the stage. It’s an optimistic, bold and clever collection of all Parton-penned new material, her best CD of all-new stuff since 1998’s “Hungry Again.”
Other highlights were a gospel number, “He’s Everything,” from her upcoming movie “Joyful Noise,” a chilling, mostly a cappella “Little Sparrow” and a rousing take of the “Hannah Montana”-Miley Cyrus hit “The Best of Both Worlds” (Parton had a cameo on the show). Also fun was a gospelized cover of Sly and the Family’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” complete with the boom-shocka-lockas. The sequencing was mostly sensical, though going from the lean, sparse “Sparrow” straight into the “River Deep” hootenanny was a tad jarring.
The singer was in great voice throughout the night, though it was impossible to tell how much of the singing was live. Curiously, some of the least taxing material — like the gently flowing “Coat” and the gospel standard “Precious Memories” — sounded the most canned, though it was hard to tell for sure. More obviously fake were several of the instrumental solos. While Parton certainly can play the guitar, banjo and autoharp, her harmonica, saxophone, pennywhistle and piano playing looked highly suspect, especially the latter — a real piano would lose its tuning the way they were whipping that rhinestone-studded prop around on stage. It was the one disconcerting aspect of the night — Parton’s so candid and revealing about so much of herself, one wonders why she feels the need to barrel through a small orchestras’ worth of instruments. Even taken on a purely showmanship level, it was overkill.
There were a couple groan-inducing moments — a silly Queen Latifah-inspired rap (her “Joyful Noise” costar) threatened to derail the proceedings but after a few self-deprecating lines, Parton quickly got back to serious music making. And she pulled the whole evening off beautifully — even some of the jokes she’s been telling for years, usually poking fun at her nips and tucks and trash/glam fashion taste, are almost as obligatory to include as her hits. There were enough fresh jokes — the best was a hilarious nod to her Korean wigmaker — to balance the trademark schtick.
Parton’s tenacity, artistry, vision and hard work are, in the final summation, simply staggering. So many of her colleagues, in both country and pop, have given up on album making — there’s no real money in it for them especially since radio won’t play their singles — and have scaled back their live shows to predictable 90-minute affairs. Parton, in contrast, seems as energized as ever. She’s an endearing and inspirational sight to behold.
* overture — “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”
1. Walking on Sunshine
2. Better Get to Living
4. Rocky Top
5. Mule Skinner Blues
8. Stairway to Heaven
9. My Tennessee Mountain Home
10. Precious Memories
11. Coat of Many Colors
12. Smoky Mountain Memories
13. Son of a Preacher Man
14. Better Day
15. Together You and I
16. Holding Everything
17. Make a Joyful Noise/rap
18. I Want to Take You Higher
19. He’s Everything
20. White Limozeen
21. Best of Both Worlds
22. The Sacrifice
23. In the Meantime
24. Little Sparrow
25. River Deep, Mountain High/band intros
26. Here You Come Again
27. Islands in the Streams
28. 9 to 5
29. I Will Always Love You (encore)
30. Light of a Clear Blue Morning