It’s something of a cliché to say Dolly Parton looks smaller in person, but there was no denying her tiny, cartoonish proportions as she launched into her opening number, a hectic country cover of Katrina and the Waves’ Walking On Sunshine, at Allphones Arena last night for the first of her two Sydney shows.
Parton’s tight canary-yellow dress clung to her impossibly cinched waist as her pipe-cleaner arms flailed wildly (with dance moves that were a little Miranda Sings-esque). Basically, the woman’s all tits.
A motley mix of glam-loving gays and country fans from somewhere west of Tamworth filled the arena, everyone eager to see the queen of country after almost 30 years away from our shores.
Hysterical yelps of “We love you Dolly!” filled the venue during many of her extended between-song monologues, but Parton, almost as renowned for her self-deprecating quips as for her music, had a line for every admirer.
“I told you to wait in the truck!” she shot back to one devoted male fan.
The setlist comprised a crowd-pleasing mix of her biggest self-penned hits (Jolene came early, while 9 to 5 and I Will Always Love You were wisely saved for encore), her quieter, more reflective moments (including a stunning a capella take on one of her finest songs, 2001’s Little Sparrow) and her more unusual covers (Collective Soul’s Shine and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven among them).
Perhaps the biggest, most heartfelt cheers of the night were reserved for Coat of Many Colours, Parton’s signature song about her dirt-poor upbringing in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains.
Parts of the show got very churchy, the vibe reaching its zenith when she sang the title track from her upcoming gospel film, Joyful Noise, as a generic ‘heaven’ screensaver of billowing white clouds played on the big screens behind her. Still, Dolly’s brand of evangelical preaching is easy to swallow, given that it’s delivered with a healthy dose of inclusivity.
She even gave a shout out to the drag queens in the audience at one point, with little pockets of Dolly lookalikes leaping from their seats to wave to the crowd.
Throughout it all, Parton proved a master of many styles: the authentic bluegrass of My Tennessee Mountain Home, the chintzy country-pop of Here You Come Again, the disco of her much loved 1978 single Baby I’m Burning.
She even tried her hand at rap in a truly bizarre little interlude dedicated to her Joyful Noise co-star Queen Latifah. So should we expect a rap album next from the 65-year-old singer? Thankfully not — as she said herself with a laugh, “You do know that country mixed with rap is crap?”