It’s impossible to overstate what a national treasure Dolly Parton is, but attend one of her concerts and you’re confronted with overwhelming evidence. So great is her fame, so indelible her image as a glitzy entertainer, that it’s paradoxically easy to lose sight of what a prodigiously skillful artist she’s always been. At the Citi Wang Theatre on Tuesday night you had to squint past the ubiquitous rhinestone glare, and cut through thrice-told childhood tales and campy gags grown kudzu-thick, but proof of her artistic stature was abundant.
Parton’s present US trek, billed as her most extensive in 25 years, is titled “Pure & Simple,” after a forthcoming album stated to include new tunes alongside acknowledged hits. Tuesday’s show followed suit, with two fresh songs — the album’s title track during the first set; “Outside Your Door” on the second — holding their own among a generous sampling of selections spanning Parton’s career.
The onstage setup suited the billing as well, at least by her glitzy standard. Parton, 70, sang with flawless pitch, and played guitar, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, and piano for keeps — plus fiddle and saxophone, more for laughs. Three longtime sidemen contributed piano and keyboards, guitars, basses, and harmony vocals. (Drums, when needed, emerged loud and foursquare from a machine.) The stage was bare, save for a few set pieces — a humble perch, a church pew — wheeled on and off by Steve Summers, Parton’s creative director, who also supplied a few stylish dance steps. A set break allowed for a single costume change.
By design, then, the show focused attention on Parton and her songs, which withstood the close scrutiny. Barreling out of the starting gate, Parton & Co. surveyed indelible early songs (“Jolene,” “Applejack,” “Coat of Many Colors”), each accompanied by a winding tale of its homespun conception. Thereafter she offered country chestnuts and gospel canon; a medley of folk-rock covers (including “Blowin’ in the Wind” with “Dust in the Wind” mashed into its crevices); and a pair of selections from her glorious collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt.
Those “Trio” tunes — planned for reissue in September with previously unreleased material, she announced — came during a second set that touched on her biggest mainstream successes. But Parton also included songs from the back-to-basics albums that reasserted her roots-music credibility: “The Grass Is Blue,” played in the piano-lounge revision of Norah Jones’s 2003 cover, and “Little Sparrow,” a stark, unadorned version of clock-stopping intensity.
From there, it was pure pleasure to the finish line: “Two Doors Down,” “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream,” and “9 to 5,” with “I Will Always Love You” reserved for the encore. That Parton could still sound fresh after working so hard verged on the supernatural; that she could joke about being OK with Whitney Houston getting credit for her biggest song so long as she got the cash, and then deliver a rendition of quavering understatement and naked honesty, illustrated one last time her paradoxical brilliance.
At Citi Wang Theatre, June 21