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I saw Dolly Parton for the first time last night when she came my way on her "Better Day" world tour. As the sun set on the brown summertime hills of the SF suburb of Concord, CA, Dolly came out shimmering with "Walking on Sunshine" and proceeded to entertain for an impressive 2.5 hour show with only one intermission for a costume change. She sang, she wiggled, she played several instruments and told hilarious yet heartwarming stories of her humble beginnings in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; it was all so masterful and gracious, and I wanted it to be true.
With decades of plastic surgery under her belt and her own theme park, it would be easy to see that Ms. Parton has a penchant for creating entertaining illusions. However, her backstory and songwriting are full of a kind of gritty realism and heartfelt truth that you'd be hard-pressed to find in today's artists (even here on ND). It is this side of Dolly that I went to see yesterday, hoping to catch a glimpse through all the glitter and cheese, but all I got was smoke and mirrors.
Her show was highly entertaining, a wham-bam medley of everything from traditional bluegrass ("Rocky Top" and "Mule Skinner") to classic rock ("Help" and "Stairway to Heaven") to Hannah Montana (for the kiddies) and even a "dis" rap targeting her friend and film co-star Queen Latifah. Her humor was over the top and sweet, she pandered equally to the mixed crowd of hicks and drag queens and she even spent a little time to educate her global audience about mountain music.
At first, only the instrument playing was suspect. The fact that she made her grand entrance with a hot lick on a glossy white fiddle and then quickly discarded it was a clue to how the whole show would go, but I suspended my disbelief nonetheless and tried to enjoy the show; after all, Dolly supposedly does play guitar, banjo and some fiddle. It wasn't until she whipped out an intro on an alto-sax that was clearly (and badly) pantomimed that I got hip. I had been wondering the whole time how she could play banjo and guitar with her long fake nails, but had rationalized that she was probably playing part of the time but was definitely doubled by a background instrumentalist. Once the sky darkened enough to really see her on the jumbo-trons, it became clear that she was pantomiming almost every instrument in the show (though I do think she probably did play the auto-harp and dulcimer for real). Where pianists usually perform to the side, Dolly's silver glittery beast was turned completely away from the audience while she pretended to play what her keyboardist behind her was obviously actually doing for her. Still, I had consolation in her sweet voice, unchanged by the years, pulling off ornaments and high notes like only a master can.... or did I?
It wasn't until about three quarters of the way through that I started watching her mouth. The vocals had been odd from the get-go, with her super-compressed headset mic seemingly divorcing her vocal sound from the rest of the band; allowing crystal clear whispers but holding back all the high notes to hell. My initial impression was that it sounded "canned", but I had chalked that up to the peculiar sound needs of Dolly's show, so she could talk and sing dynamically into one mic that was in a fixed position on her face. Sadly, once I could see her face on the big screens, I started to notice the incongruities.
In addition to being a musician I am also a voice teacher, so I'm sure I was picking up on technical subtleties that most would not notice, and to be honest, with all the plastic surgery and botox it's pretty hard to actually see what someone's face is doing, but all that doubt was confirmed when I caught her dropping words in the second set. It was clear by the end that Dolly had lip-synced at least half of the concert and had pantomimed playing almost every instrument known to man. The ethical debate raged in the car on the way home. Lip-syncing, miming... is it wrong?
The one thing that was undeniably real and "Dolly" in the show were her original songs. Dolly Parton has apparently published over 3,000 songs in her career and has had 26 country #1's and won eight Grammies. Her writing ranges from full-on bubblegum-disco-pop to traditional bluegrass and country, and her neo-Appalachian ballads like "Little Sparrow" are good enough to join the old-time lexicon. She is steeped in the great American traditions of Mountain Music and Vaudeville and has managed to distill both in her writing and performance to reach a worldwide audience.
Little Sparrow sung for real...
Little Sparrow from a recent tour, clearly lip-synched.... (sounded identical to this last night)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibTL8cTng5k (embedding disabled)
So, can we fault her at age 65 for employing any means necessary to continue to bring these songs and this culture around the world? How fake is too fake? And when we go to see a stadium type concert, what are we really paying for? Do we expect to see and hear a truly "live" performance or is some illusion ok?
I'm sure I don't know anymore.