A series of improbable events brought me to Dolly Parton Saturday night, at the last minute joining a high school friend who was taking his sixty-something parents out to the Hollywood Bowl for a mother’s day gift. My friend’s accountant father started sharing that many of his clients are marijuana collectives, and also started sharing marijuana throat lozenges with us; pointing to his wife, he was telling us he gives the lozenges to her for mild arthritis and they wouldn’t have much of an effect on us, if at all. An hour later the two of us have not spoken a word, and my eyes are glued on Dolly Parton, and on the lights and effects behind her, and she is playing dueling banjos with her band, and holy mother how is it that I am high and next to my high school friend’s parents and at a Dolly concert.
If performers (and performances) are to be judged according to their hard efforts, then even “Fitz” gets a run for its money from Dolly, 65 years old and delivering a show running well over two and a half hours, stopping midway for a 15 minute intermission, belting out songs to the delight of Saturday night’s capacity crowd of predominantly baby boomers and gay men (a fair share of which are dressed in pink cowboy hats, blonde wigs, and stuffed bosoms).
Early on, Dolly covers “Walking on Sunshine”, “Help”, and a banjo version of “Stairway to Heaven.” She shares, as a songwriter, how flattering it is to have others perform your songs .. except that she always hated the Whitney Houston version that “went and ruined” her song. The audience hangs on every word, every Dolly’ism.
She compliments the audience on their good looks, complaining “lord” there were some ugly people the prior night, to laughs. She shares stories about momma, who raised twelve children with little money but plenty of love, and devotes a song to “all the loving mommas out there.” And she follows with a story about her illiterate father, who had trouble finding work but always managed to put food on the table, and devotes a song to “all the hardworking daddy’s out there.” That leads to a series of bits on “twitter,” which was something you got yourself into when Daddy was after you with his belt, and “online”, which momma yelled at the children to get the clothes hung out on, and “Facebook”, with her preacher granddaddy yelling at her to get her face in the good book .. and so on.
The show is finely tuned, assuredly the result of a decades long career, of learning precisely what your audience wants and delivering. And Dolly indeed delivers, changing wardrobes from white sequin pantsuits to bright yellow southern belle dresses straight out of Dolly’s tennessee roots, switching out between banjo and piano, and singing from one end of the stage to the other. The show peaks with “Islands in the Stream,” then straight into “9 to 5.” This is Dolly at her best, and the Bowl audience takes to their feet. They dance. They sing loudly along. And 17,000 people leave the Bowl with more than satisfied looks on their faces.