Review by Tony BonyataLast Saturday country music legend Merle Haggard ambled onto the stage of the Hemmens Cultural Center and put on a show for a crowd eager to hear anything the 66 year-old musician might be able to muster. But despite his approaching years, Haggard and his seven-piece western swing band The Strangers, performed a healthy, heartfelt and often raucous 19 song set that saw him in an upbeat and good-natured mood throughout.
Photos by Phil Bonyata
Smartly dressed in a cobalt blue fringed suit with cowboy hat, boots and sandy gray Paul Revere ponytail, Haggard wowed his audience with many of his greatest hits from a career spanning over four decades. From rabble-rousing country numbers ("Swinging Doors," "Get Along Home Cindy" and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink") to touching, introspective songs ("Silver Wings," "Footlights" and "Sing Me Back Home") and southern-flavored rockers brimming with Hee Haw-ian humor ("Ramblin' Fever"), Haggard and his tight band delivered a rich, varied collection of not only some of Haggard's best material, but some of country music's finest as well.
Haggard offered up his own simple, yet highly effective, guitar leads on the roadhouse rocker "Workin' Man Blues" and "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star," with its dreamy '50s rhythm, but also broke out a fiddle on a spirited cover of Lefty Frizzell's 1951 hit "If You've Got The Money Honey, I've Got The The Time."
But even more than his picking and fiddling, Haggard's true beauty still lies in both his warm, unaffected voice, which over the years has deepened with a wiser resonance and earthier timbre, as well as his poetic ability to set one helluva telling tale within the context of a three-minute song.
With longing vocals, one of the highlights of the show turned up when Haggard broke into a sparse arrangement of "If I Could Only Fly," from his brilliant return-to-form album of the same name from a couple of years back. Despite the minor setback that this was the only number performed from that album, the crowd didn't seem to mind once he broke into his classic anti-hippie '60s anthem "Okie from Muskogee." As the entire house fervently joined along, it sounded as if they were singing a new patriotic song for these turbulent times.
Although best known as a country artist, Haggard has often added interesting elements of jazz, blues, rock and boogie woogie to his simple and honest songs. Onstage all of these elements were showcased at one point or another, proving that the young pre-packaged country artists spilling out Nashville's assembly line ain't got a thing on this old boy.
"After 20 years of pickin', we're still alive and kickin' down the walls. Tonight we'll kick the footlights out, and walk away without a curtain call," Haggard defiantly sang at one point in the evening. And while it's actually been well over 40 years now that's he's been pickin', the rest remains the same - ol' Hag's still alive and kickin' just as hard as ever.
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