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'Dolly Parton concert review' – Everguide

After three hours, two wigs, eight bedazzled instruments and too many stories about down-home Tennessee to count, there's one thing I can tell you for sure about Dolly Parton: she is a compulsive people-pleaser. 

From the moment the overture from '9 to 5' began and a projection of Dolly's silhouette appeared in the butterfly-shaped screen behind her 10-piece band, to the moment she was lead off-stage after a one-song encore (more on that later), there was barely a moment when the crowd of mums, cowboy hat-wearers (both genuine and ironic, sequinned and fur-lined), country fans, pop fans and Joyful Noise fans (holla!) was not totally satisfied to take all she had to give us. 

I'm a massive Dolly fan, but I wasn't sure how many tracks in the set I'd be familiar with. I know her hits like the back of my hand, but I haven't had a chance to listen to her new album Blue Smoke or dig too deep into her full discography. I needn't have worried, though; the show began with a track that (bizarrely) sampled Alicia Keys' 'Girl on Fire' and was swiftly followed by the cowgirl crush jam 'Why'd You Come In Here Lookin' Like That?' and the timeless and eternally heart-breaking 'Jolene'. After the final cry of "Joleeeeeene" had quivered from her lips, Dolly told the story of the auburn-haired bank-teller who inspired the tune. In the earliest days of their marriage, Dolly reminisced, she noticed her husband spending an amount of time at the bank that was inconsistent with the amount of money they were earning. "So I went down there and I saw the girl he'd been flirtin' with, and I put a stop to it!" Where is Jolene now? I don't know; Dolly didn't get to that part. (I suspect suffocated by boobies, but the jury's still out.) 

I'd estimate equal time in the show was spent telling stories like these, as it was singing. Dolly loves a story, and tells them like any 68-year-old person does: "We drove into this, uh, this place today - no, it was yesterday - and I saw the sign out front that said, uh, oh, what'd it say? Oh! 'Nine Inch Nails; The Stone-Aged Queens; Dolly Parton' and I said, "Is that all for me!?" She knows how to tell a joke and whips them out often, with nothing less than perfect comedic timing. She couldn't bear to think we took any of her punchlines about acrylic nails, artificial hair ("This is the European hair… mine now!"), horny hillbillies or pigeon poop to heart, though, and she followed every cracker up with an apologetic, "I'm just playin'!" or "I don't mean no disrespect!" 

For all her sequins and spangles, and no matter how high her hair or cup sizes get, Dolly constantly reminds us that she's one of 12 children, raised in the backwoods of Tennessee by hard-working, religious parents in 1940s and '50s. There are plenty of "Amen!"s between songs, a few minutes where the projector screen bares images of stained glass windows and sepia-toned photographs of baptisms (really), and even an appearance by an upright organ (decorated, as all her clothes and instruments were, in sequins and jewels) that turned a hyperbolical religious experience into a Hillsong event. It was made abundantly clear that her new track 'Lay Your Hands On Me' - a pseudo-cover of Bon Jovi's song of the same name - is about Jesus and not, as my friend assumed when she reviewed the album last month, getting laid. Of course! Why didn't she realise the lines "I'm thirsty, I'm hungry, my heart's breakin', you say your love is mine for the takin'," and "Everything you are is all I need, and your satisfaction is guaranteed… so, if you want me, lay your hands on me…," are about JESUS! It's so obvious now! 

But these are the moments you tolerate and tug your collar through to get to the moments that make it worthwhile, like when Dolly began waxing lyrical about her mother's talent as a homemaker, a cook, and a seamstress and a ripple began to spread through the audience. "You know where this is going!" Dolly cried. And we did. She rested her autoharp on her knee and launched into 'Coat of Many Colours'; a song she dedicated to her "own, sweet mama" and says has had a healing effect on many people. 

Dolly's people-pleasing does not take away her agency as an artist or imply that she's weak-willed; rather, it shows her skill as a classic show-woman. She knows this crowd has spent money on these tickets, chosen outfits to wear, paid for parking, bought daiquiris in light-up souvenir martini glasses, stood in line for t-shirts at the merch stand, and shuffled through Rod Laver Arena by the thousands to be her audience for a couple of hours. She knows that, and that's why the final half-hour of her set began with (my all-time favourite Dolly song) 'Here You Come Again', and continued at a brisk pace through 'Islands in the Stream' (her male backing vocalist taking on Kenny's role) and '9 to 5'. She wants us to leave knowing that we've heard all our favourites. 

It feels like the end at that point (and not just because the mid-concert intermission started later than scheduled and I was starting to feel sleepy), so I gather my bag to leave. My friend grabs my arm - "She hasn't played 'I Will Always Love You' yet." Of course. Of course she'll do an encore of the song that will never not remind me of the saddest moment in all seven seasons ofGilmore Girls, the one I saw Beyoncé sing on that very stage five months ago in memory of Whitney

It didn't matter that Dolly wasn't really playing her comically tiny saxophone, or that her (white, bedazzled) violin wasn't connected to anything, or that she raised her harmonica to her lips at the end of a cover of Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' and no sound came out. Because what she said about 'Coat of Many Colours' was right; it's healing and comforting just to hear her sing the songs she's been singing for years, the ones we know by heart and she'll never stop performing live and that haven't lost their significance in all these years. 

Posted on Everguide, 13 February, 2014.

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