Staging a show as a tribute to a singer can be tricky. The least deviation destroys any illusions, yet total replication of the singer’s material can leave audiences feeling that they could have stayed home and played the CDs. Our Lady J avoids these pitfalls in her celebration of Polly Parton. Her smooth powerful voice does not resemble the country twang of her heroine so Parton’s bluegrass songs are re-interpreted in a full-blooded gospel show.
There is one way in which Lady J resembles Parton. Beneficiary of ‘ Boob Aid’ (finally! A charity that I can endorse whole-heartedly) she shows off a tremendous pair of new knockers. This, she explains, is part of her transformation into an android. This seems like a joke until, as the encore, she feeds her vocals through a computer to produce an electronically distorted version of Trent Razor’s "Hurt." It is the only part of the show that doesn’t work – leeching the emotion from the song.
Otherwise the show works very well. The highly personal nature of Lady J’s own songs and the absence of a chorus limit our emotional involvement but we can still enjoy a highly entertaining performance. "Among the Dead"‘ becomes an unlikely sing-along as does "Trained to Kill" – a US army training song re-written to be critical of the army.
It may be a reaction to too much mid-tempo cabaret music over the Festival but I found Lady J’s punchy honky-tonk piano very exciting. She gets great support from the Manchester Trained to Kill Gospel Choir. Conducted by Jonathan Best they deliver excellent vocals and are capable of stepping in unrehearsed when the computer fails (which I took as a sign that prayer might just work).
The Dolly Parton songs are well chosen. Although some are included to secure audience recognition rather than to fit the gospel theme there are still those like "The Grass is Blue" and "The Seeker" to satisfy any Parton fan.
This fine show makes you hope that it is some time before Lady J achieves her ambition of transformation into an android.
- Dave Cunningham