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REVIEW: Jerry Lee Lewis and Balls of Country Fire (Treasure Island Resort & Casino)

A promotional photo of Jerry Lee Lewis in concert.

Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer,” is – without question – one of the most important figures in rock-and-roll history. He was inducted in the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His rockabilly sound, combined with an wild piano style and unmatched stage charisma, quickly made him a star.

If you’ve never seen The Killer in action, you can get a sense of the energy of his performances from these two videos, from 1957 and 1964. After a string of hits with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Breathless”, and “High School Confidential”, however, he dropped off the charts for several years – his career sidetracked by the scandal of an underage wife (he is now on Wife #7).

Jerry Lee Lewis performing in the 1950s.

When Lewis resurfaced, it was as a country singer; he has since had thirty Top 10 hits in the Country and Western charts. While most of his contemporaries passed away long ago, Lewis has soldiered on with occasional recordings and tours, now into his 80s (he will be 83 in September). On the recording side, with 2006’s Last Man Standing and 2010’s Mean Old Man, Lewis played songs with well-known artists from a wide range of backgrounds: including Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Buddy Guy, Rod Stewart, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson, Toby Keith, Little Richard, Kid Rock, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, John Fogerty, Willie Nelson, and Mavis Staple.

The opening act for the evening was Jacob Tolliver, who for years had been an understudy for the role of Jerry Lee Lewis in a Las Vegas run of Million Dollar Quartet. That show was based on a real event, an impromptu jam session at Sun Records with Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. (The Old Log Theatre had a long-running production in 2016-2017.) Tolliver showed off his Lewis-style piano moves – playing the piano with speed and finesse, singing with enthusiasm, and once even playing some piano notes with his foot – with support from Lewis’s long-time guitarist Kenny Lovelace and drumming legend Kenny Aronoff. Lovelace has been playing with Lewis since 1966. Aronoff is best known for his work with John Mellencamp, though he was also just at Treasure Island in support of John Fogerty. Both, of course, stayed on to play with Lewis.

Lewis entered as the proper dandy, with a glittery silver sport coat, a red neckerchief, and shiny white shoes. While he did not prowl the stage as he did in his 20s – in fact, he never left the piano stool during his performance – he still had great fingering speed on the keys, and pounded them when needed. His voice has generally held up well, though there were a couple of songs when the words were more growled than sung. Lewis ventured an occasional “woooh” and rolling “r” purr, to remind us of decades past.

Most of the evening’s songs were from the country charts. Lewis started with “Move on Down the Line” and “Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”, then went on to “You Win Again”, “Why You Been Gone So Long”, “As Far as I’m Concerned”, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”, and “Mexicali Rose”. The audience was happy enough with these, but were really excited for the rockabilly finish of “Great Balls of Fire” and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”. It is, after all, not often that one gets to hear a legend.

At the end of the set, Lewis kicked over his piano stool for old time’s sake.

Jerry Lee Lewis at Saturday’s concert. Photo by Brian Bix.
Brian Bix