This was about as perfect as a night of music could get.
I suppose if you were one of the 1,000 people whose seat was in the blocked-off street outside Knuckleheads you could have complained about the view. And a few times I wished the volume was higher on Merle Haggard’s vocals. Otherwise, Thursday’s sold-out show was a master class in songwriting and performance, delivered outdoors on a comfortably warm late-summer night.
Haggard, 75, is one of country music’s greatest songwriters. He burnishes his legend with a no-frills, common-man attitude that belies his stature. He was in good voice Thursday, backed by a steady six-piece band and two singers who assisted him through a 90-minute set stacked with some of his best-known material.
He opened with “Ramblin’ Fever,” appropriate for a guy now in his fifth decade of touring. Haggard is the rare songwriter who doesn’t fuss much with the arrangements of his songs. For the most part, he plays them like he recorded them, like everyone remembers them.
Some of his most popular songs came early: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Silver Wings,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” During “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star” a train roared by, and Haggard imitated its whistle with a few hard riffs on his guitar.
During his cover of “Folsom Prison Blues,” a woman ran onstage, then initiated a pursuit through the crowd by two of the doormen. Haggard continued singing through it all, unfazed. Two other covers were highlights: “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”
A slight lull or two set in during tracks like “Are the Good Times Really Over for Good.” Otherwise the vibe was upbeat all night.
Not too proud to give his crowd — which ranged in age from 20-somethings to people Haggard’s age — what it came for, he reprised two of his standards: “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee.” If he’s weary from having played them a hundred dozen times, he never shows it. That’s another facet if his charm: He seems to have as good a time performing his stout and stellar catalog as his admiring fans have hearing it.Set list
Ramblin’ Fever; The Bottle Let Me Down; Mama Tried; Silver Wings; Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star; Folsom Prison Blues; I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink; I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am; Today I Started Loving You Again; Are the Good Times Really Over; That’s the Way Love Goes; The Fightin’ Side of Me; Pancho and Lefty; Workin’ Man’s Blues; California Blues; Honky Tonk Night Time Man; Old Man From the Mountain; Working in Tennessee; Take Me Back to Tulsa; Okie From Muskogee.