Live Review

Jerry Lee Lewis - Music Center At Strathmore (N. Bethesda, MD)

Jerry Lee Lewis on January 20, 2006

There was a time when Jerry Lee Lewis might have set fire to his piano, or climbed atop it to shout vocals like a possessed madman, or at the very least pounded some high notes with his right foot. Those days are long past. In fact, before this show at the Washington, D.C., area's newest big-time concert hall, the stage manager was instructed to find a "lighter" piano bench so that the 70-year-old rocker could kick it out from under him with less difficulty. Which he did, with a dramatic flourish, during the "Great Balls Of Fire" finale. But otherwise his feet remained planted on the floor throughout. And that was just fine for the 1,600 well-dressed patrons (about 300 short of a sellout) at Strathmore, who rose to their own feet twice for the last surviving member of the Million Dollar Quartet. Lewis made the trip in anticipation of a brief European and domestic tour to promote The Pilgrim, his new disc of all-star duets, before its release in March. If the performance reflects the record, it should return Lewis to the spotlight. Accompanied by guitarists Kenneth Lovelace and Butch Hutchinson, bassist B.B. Cunningham, and drummer Robert Hall, the Killer romped through his 50-year-old hits to the surprise of no one, and to the delight of anyone who cares about the fieriest piano licks in the Great American Songbook. He didn't invent the glissando -- the rapid drawing of the finger along the white keys -- but he certainly owns it, and he put it to great use in every song. (If you think it's easy, just try it sometime, in rhythm, in the right key, while singing, four times in a row as Lewis does.) Dressed in a dark suit and white shoes, Lewis straddled the microphone stand, turned his head to his right, and gave a knowing smile to the audience before playing "Roll Over Beethoven" with the urgency of an encore. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", "Chantilly Lace", "Sweet Little Sixteen", "Lucille" -- yes, it read like the tired set list from every city's classic rock station. But this was Jerry Lee himself banging out those incomparable chords on the grand piano, and the music rang into your very DNA. His voice was in as fine a form as his dexterous hands, if slightly deeper than you remember it. Taking sips from a plastic Sprite bottle between songs, Lewis kept his remarks brief. "Here's one I've been playing since I was 10 years old," he said before leaning into "Georgia On My Mind". When an audience member called out for "Crazy Arms", Lewis glanced up and said, "I don't think I remember that, but we'll give it a shot." And then, of course, he nailed it.