Dolly Parton brought her 60-city Pure & Simple Tour to NRG Arena Monday night, and compared to most big name shows, it was relatively toned-down affair. There were no large overhead screens projecting big close-ups or massive backup bands — just three musicians and a hunky cowboy who helped Parton around the stage to get ready for her next song. She even joked that a couple of songs that used smoke were her big special effects numbers.
"But that's just dry ice," she explained. "Don't sue me, 'cause it's not going to kill you."
Yet, there's nothing that's exactly pure or simple with Parton. Before an adoring sold-out crowd of around 8,000, ranging from oldsters in wheel chairs to toddlers (the baby in his mother's arms next to me whimpered most the night), the ageless singer mixed bawdy humor with religious piety and a series of show-stopping numbers that proved she remains the consummate entertainer.
At nearly 71, Parton still maintains her Barbie doll figure, joking, "I like to say I'm a self-made woman and I have the doctor bills to prove it." She wore two sequined outfits — a form-fitting beige jump suit in the first act and a silver-trimmed, shoulder-baring red onesie in the second act— giving credence to her comment, "I always say, 'Never leave a rhinestone unturned.' "
Even though she chatted incessantly between songs, telling long stories about her parents and growing up poor in the mountains of Tennessee in what seemed to be a ploy to give her body time to recover in order to belt out yet another big song — at one point she even admitted she was stalling, "trying to catch my breath," Parton more than proved that she can still captivate a crowd.
Sure, the audience loved her hits — "Jolene," Coat of Many Colors" and a string of demanding pop songs near the end of the show, including "Islands in the Stream," "9 to 5," "Here You Come Again," and "I Will Always Love You" — but it was with the gospel-tinged tunes that Parton excelled.
She and her bandmates were in fine form on an a capella rendition of "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind," and she nearly raised the roof on the church-like songs "Banks of the Old Ohio," "The Seeker," and "I'll Fly Away." I found her soulful interpretation of "Little Sparrow/If I Had Wings" to be the high point of the concert and a series of songs about her Tennessee upbringing, including "Precious Memories," "My Tennessee Mountain Home," and "Smoky Mountain Memories," seemed especially poignant, given the devastating fires that have savaged the area. Parton said she plans a telethon on December 13 in Nashville to raise funds for victims of the disaster.
And who can resist the rambunctious "Rocky Top?" On that number Parton played banjo and fiddle before switching to a small saxophone to finish up with "Yakety Sax." At various times throughout the evening she also played the dulcimer, the piano, the autoharp, the harmonica and other instruments, demonstrating what a versatile musician she is.
Even though she said she's suffering from a head cold from the long tour (with only four cities to go) — at one point, she took out a Kleenex and wiped her nose, adding, "Anyone want to sell it on eBay?" — you couldn't tell it from her energetic performance, which lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.
And she sure showed that she continues to be a sexy senior citizen. At one point a young man yelled out, "I love you Dolly!" Without missing a beat, she replied, "I told you to wait in the truck."
"All these horny boys," she mused. "At my age!"