Great balls of fiery fun

Published May 7, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Mother Nature vs. Jerry Lee Lewis? Now that's a good fight.

With wild gusts whipping over the grounds of Vinoy park on Sunday, the Killer proved he still has a whole lotta fire left in those 71-year-old fingertips, closing out the final day of this year's Tampa Bay Blues Fest with trademark macho swagger.

"Sounds like a hurricane's blowing through my microphone, " the piano-pounded legend said at the start of his 45-minute set. But Lewis wasn't complaining; no, the pride of Ferriday, La., as controversial a rock icon as there's ever been, was taking that as a challenge.

Jerry Lee, the Sun Records sensation, hasn't lost many battles in his more than 50 years of hollering and hell-raising. And if he looked hunched and every bit his age creeping to his sleek black baby grand, you'd be a fool to bet against him.

After a three-song opening set by backing band the Memphis Beats, Lewis came out and came alive at the keys, playing Roll Over Beethoven, his fingers flying, pounding, defying the nasty laws of aging.

Okay, so his voice may lack the nuance and high heat of his younger days; he now growls like a froggy swamp dweller bellowing for his hounds. But man oh man, the Killer can still play that piano. Scientists should study his blazing right hand, a gunslinger's weapon for sure.

Dressed in an untucked purple shirt and black slacks, he spent a good part of his set working out songs from 2006 comeback album Last Man Standing: The Duets, on which he goes toe-to-toe with such relatively younger rock gods as Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. But just as he did on record, Lewis proved that he doesn't need help raising a ruckus, putting boogie-woogie oomph into such bluesy gems as Before the Night Is Over, Trouble in Mind and Sweet Little Sixteen.

It didn't take long for the crowd, which had thinned after an earlier rainstorm, to start shimmying. And don't you know the Killer grinned and smirked at all those pretty ladies shaking it up in the front row. Young, old, older - Jerry Lee is one man who never cared about age, just beauty.

A besotted few in the crowd started bellowing for Great Balls of Fire as soon as he walked onstage (as if it might slip his mind to play his biggest hit). But Jerry Lee got there soon enough.

If you were waiting for him to set his piano on fire, or play with his boot, well, the Killer doesn't do that stuff anymore.

But for the life-affirming closing song, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On ("Jerry Lee's got the bull by the horns!" he hollered), he punctuated that rumbler by turning his back to the piano, and playing with his rump.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@ sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.