Dolly Parton, Hammersmith Apollo, London
Hello, Dolly: the long-awaited return of the Queen of Nashville
Friday 22 November 2002
They don't come any more darned, dashed fabulous than Dolly. Tonight the Queen of Nashville is shining like a beacon in a silver tasselled dress, six-inch stilettos and a smile that could span the Atlantic.
It's nearly two decades since the country star last performed in the UK and, judging by the hysteria in the audience, it's clear that she has been sorely missed. Her fans are a peculiar mix of teenage girls and gay boys, pop fans and country devotees, all gloriously united in their love of Dolly.
Five years ago Dolly was effectively banned from the airwaves – even the country radio stations deemed her too trashy, a kitsch throwback to the old days of rhinestones and big hats. But over the past three years she has undergone a transformation, yielding a sequence of critically acclaimed albums rooted in the bluegrass music she grew up with. The first two, The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow, both won Grammys while this summer's Halos & Horns went straight into the Top 40.
After a shaky start in which the singer stumbles over her words – "If you didn't know me you'd think I'd been drinking. Don't worry, I'm just stupid," she giggles – she finds her feet with an impeccable set that revolves around her last three albums. Her voice is rich and soulful, and the musicianship flawless from a seven-strong band comprising mandolins, fiddles, banjos and acoustic guitars. Effortlessly persuading the punters to join in with the choruses, she cries: "This is the best kind of therapy!"
There's almost as much conversation as there is music as, in her melodious Southern drawl, Dolly mistily recalls her down-at-heel upbringing as one of 12 siblings in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. "We kept Mama on a pedestal. We had to 'cause it was the only way we could keep Daddy away from her," she coos, her eyes glistening with glee. There are a few ribald asides about her make-up and hair, too – playing up to her mythology is all part of the fun.
Later on, her band gather round for an a cappella medley of Dolly's earlier material including "Islands in the Stream", "Why'd You Come in Here?" and "Two Doors Down". Then come the really big hits – "9 to 5" and "Jolene" both get the crowd roaring, while "I Will Always Love You" prompts some furtive snivelling. Even in Dolly's queasier moments, you can't help but be moved. For all her sequins and slap, this girl's the real deal.
Touring at the Belfast Waterfront Hall tomorrow, Glasgow Clyde Auditorium on 26 and 27 Nov and The Point, Dublin on 29 Nov
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