Sharon Jones is a dynamo. The 58-year-old soul singer danced nonstop during her 90-minute set at the Merriam Theater Friday night, commanding the stage from the first aggressive moments of "Retreat" to the last moments of a funked-up version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Her energy is all the more remarkable because she's a cancer survivor: In May 2013, about to release her fifth album, Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she spent half of 2013 undergoing chemo treatments.
She returned to performing late in the year, and the delayed Give the People finally came out in January 2014. It received a Grammy nomination for best R&B album (losing to Toni Braxton & Babyface). "I may not have won a Grammy," she said Friday night, "but I got me some Philly love."
When Jones testified about her cancer fight late in Friday's show, she came across as a grateful hero, triumphant but humbled by the opportunity to be back on stage before an audience that loves her. The former prison corrections officer remains a fighter: In January, she had a tumor on her liver removed. Friday night's performance, however, showed no lasting effects of her health struggles. Jones was all boundless energy, ear-to-ear smiles, and earnest good humor.
She fronted the Dap-Kings - the same group, helmed by bass player Gabriel Roth and guitarist Binky Griptite, that backed Amy Winehouse on Back to Black. The five-piece band, plus three horns and two backing vocalists, moved through an encyclopedic range of classic soul from the late '60s and early '70s. Nostalgia is part of the thrill, and Jones paid tribute to Tina Turner, Gladys Knight, James Brown, and even Shirley Bassey (with a snippet of "Goldfinger"). During one segment, she demonstrated a catalogue of mid-'60s dance moves - the Pony, the Swim, the Mashed Potato, the Boogaloo, the Twist, and many others.
Although songs like "You've Been Lonely," "Making Up and Breaking Up," and "People Don't Get What They Deserve" are anchored in the past, Jones and the Dap-Kings make them fully alive in the present. Jones brought up audience members to dance with her, directed the band with a cock of her hip or a flip of her arm, and danced and grinned constantly.
"I'm so happy I'm alive and in Philly," she proclaimed, and that happiness was infectious.