Sharon Jones should have been somewhere else Friday night.
The 58-year-old singer, a pillar of modern American soul, should have played the Orange Peel sometime last year, following the release of her sixth LP with the Dap-Kings, Give the People What They Want. She should have been in another city, or at home, resting after months of touring. Instead, Jones was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer last summer. Her album was postponed. Tour dates were cancelled. She underwent surgery, and immediately began an exhausting regimen of chemotherapy.
So fast-forward six months later to Valentine’s Day, when Jones, cancer-free, emphatically returned to a sellout in Asheville. She was amazing.
“I’ve been coughing all day,” Jones said, informing the crowd that she had been feeling under the weather earlier that day. “But I’m here. And if I can kick cancer in the ass, I think I can kick a little sniffle.”
Jones showed few signs of a cold, or of her recent battle, for that matter. She looked comfortable, strong and soulful. The only evidence from her life-threatening ordeal was the absence of her familiar braids, temporarily lost to the cancer-killing treatment.
“It’s growing back,” she said, gesturing to the incoming crop of hair. “But I noticed, it’s coming back a little gray. That’s alright.”
Jones sang and danced for two hours, showcasing “1965 moves” like the mashed potato, the wobble and the jerk. She threw back her head and wailed, confident in the range of her voice as though none the past year’s trials or fatigue had affected it. Her energy was boundless, backed by the popcorn percussion, bass and brass of the Dap-Kings. Songs with names like “Retreat” and “Get Up and Get Out,” recorded prior to her diagnosis, took on new meaning—as defiant anti-cancer anthems.
Opening for Jones was Valerie June, who offered several songs from last year’s critically acclaimed “Pushin’ Against a Stone.”
The songs were toned-down versions of those found on the Dan Auerbach-produced record, but no less genuine and compelling. Soft strums and light percussion gave June’s Tennessee vocal plenty of room to guide the music, making for a fitting contrast to the latter set by Jones and the Dap-Kings.
The gig was the fourth in a ten-week comeback tour for Jones, who hasn’t been on stage in nearly a year. She seemed to enjoy every minute of it. Before wrapping her final number—2010’s I Learned the Hard Way—she began to bid farewell with what appeared to be a familiar plug for the merchandise table. But rather than encourage fans to purchase albums and T-shirts, Jones invited them to meet her for “hugs, pictures, or whatever.”
The line began to form as soon as she left the stage.