Although it's been 15 years or so since the last full-blown rockabilly revival, legions still worship at the altar of Elvis and Jerry Lee. Those fans, young and old, many with vintage clothing and hairstyles, flocked to the Trocadero on Thursday night to see living legend Wanda Jackson and heir-apparent Imelda May, the past and the present of rockabilly.
Looking smashing in a red-and-white-striped sailor shirt, blue pencil skirt, ponytail, and top curl, May, 37, led her crack band through a vivacious hour of straight-up rockabilly, country-tinged pop, and bluesy ballads. Her Dublin roots were on display in the lilting "Kentish Town Waltz" and the revved-up "Johnny Got a Boom Boom," on which she played a bodhran. While her growling cover of "Poor Boy" lacked the evil of Howlin' Wolf's original (whose wouldn't?), she was dynamite on Johnny Burnette's "Train Kept A-Rollin' " and her own "Pulling the Rug," both featuring the kinetic slap bass of Al Gare.
May gave a shout-out to Bill Haley's guitarist, Johnny Kay, who was in the audience, and introduced Jackson by saying, "If it wasn't for her, us girls wouldn't be screaming at the top of our lungs doing rock-and-roll."
That's not hyperbole. Jackson, 73, was the first female rockabilly star, and she told stories of touring with Elvis Presley in 1955 and learning songs in his bedroom when she was 17 ("Yes, girls, he could kiss good"). In a fringed white-leather jacket and with the Nashville band the Hi Dollars behind her, Jackson began her 75-minute set with "There's a Party Goin' On," a statement of intent. Her voice grew stronger as the night progressed; it still has a girlish catch that she offsets with whoops, growls, and yodels, and it was sweet on "Right or Wrong" and tough for "Funnel of Love."
Jackson arranged the set in thematic groups preceded by reminiscences of her early rockabilly days, her Elvis experiences, her country and gospel years, and her recent Jack White-produced album, The Party Ain't Over. The latter had a tribute to Amy Winehouse before her cover of "You Know I'm No Good."
At the evening's end, Jackson brought back Imelda May for "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Let's Have a Party." Introducing May, Jackson said, "When I do have to pass the mantle down, this is who I will pass it to." That's assurance that rockabilly is in fine shape, for now and for the future.