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Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings @ The Pabst Theater

March 6, 2014

sharon jones pabst theater cancer 2014
Photo credit: Melissa Miller
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Sharon Jones shouldn’t have been here Thursday night. She should’ve been resting in some comfortable bed instead of blowing through this soulful rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” for her encore. Thursday show at the Pabst Theater marked the beginnings of a victory lap of sorts for Jones. Last March, she felt a sharp pain in her back at a performance in Boise, Idaho. It turned out to be pancreatic cancer. Surgery removed the cancer but, as it does, also took parts of her pancreas and intestine. Then she went through chemo therapy to ensure the cancer vanished for good. Those grueling sessions ended this past New Year’s Eve, so here she was, two months later, exactly one month into her tour, busting and jiving in her 90th minute on stage, a boundless ball of energy. And it looked like she could go longer.

Her backing band, The Dap-Kings, started things off earlier on with its standard James Brown-inspired introduction to warm up the crowd. Then a pair of back-up singers, dubbed The Dapettes, was welcomed onstage to perform a few singles from their own catalog. When the audience had been summoned to its feet and Jones finally appeared, her unrelenting energy didn’t seem so out of place. And what a firecracker she is. The Dap-Kings simply provide well-knit background rhythms; Jones makes these songs come to life with her dynamic voice and jovial attitude.

She showcased some soul revivalist tunes off her latest record Give The People What They Want, out this January, after a delay following her cancer diagnosis. Even though her material was written before doctors discovered the dreadful disease, these songs felt like an empowering statement to strive on no matter the circumstances. “You’ll Be Lonely,” “People Don’t Get What They Deserve,” and especially the mighty “Retreat!” all could double as metaphors for sticking out life’s most grave circumstances, though they’re ostensibly about spurning a dude. On “Get Up And Get Out,” Jones made this message much less opaque when she slowed the band down during the interlude and delivered a fiery treatise about surviving—explaining the ill effects she still feels and some of the youthfulness the cancer took from the 57-year-old singer. “I told cancer to get up and get out,” she heralded to massive cheers. The in-between song applause seemed less obligatory and more like encouragement for her to keep pushing through her pain.

If that wasn’t enough, Jones also noted the day marked two years since losing her mother, a cancer survivor herself, who ultimately succumbed years later when it returned. She dedicated the straightforward and gentle “Mama Don’t Like My Man” from 2010’s I Learned the Hard Way to her mom. But her performance wasn’t all that sentimental. She treated the rest of the night with a lighter, loftier mentality and an inexplicable drive. Jones guided the crowd through an assortment of 1960s dance moves, including the Twist, the Wobble, the Mashed Potatoes (with Gravy) and the Funky Chicken. She even invited a man pulled from the front row to strut his stuff with her during a couple songs.

After her closing cover of Woody Guthrie’s famous number concludes, she began talking so fast it all deliberately sounds like gibberish, but she finally gets her point across. Jones wants everyone in the audience to meet her at the merch table to say hello, or hug, or take a picture, or whatever. Nothing slows this woman down. Not even a little silly cancer.