Merle Haggard shared an interesting bit of trivia with an audience of almost 1,300 at the Uptown Theater on Monday.
“Kansas City was the first place I ever played outside of California,” Haggard recalled.
Four years after he was released from San Quentin State Prison and one year after his debut recording had been issued, that 1964 performance likely crackled with youthful energy.
Catching the country artist as he was on the cusp of achieving stardom 51 years ago was probably thrilling, but Haggard’s outing in 1964 almost certainly couldn’t have been more satisfying than Monday’s concert.
Without resorting to a single medley, Haggard and his seven-piece band the Strangers played 20 songs in 80 minutes in a survey of the septuagenarian’s momentous career.
The set list was a compelling mix of hits, obscurities and cover selections that allowed the band to stretch out. Each song reflected an important component of Haggard’s career or an revealed an aspect of Haggard’s complex personality.
One of the most important songwriters of the 20th century, Haggard may have done as much to shape the self-perception of Americans as filmmaker Martin Scorsese and author Maya Angelou. The struggle against poverty, nomadic quests for a better life and alcohol dependency are among the recurring themes of his compositions.
The Strangers carefully buttressed Haggard’s interpretations of his lyrics. He always has sung with the exquisite timing of a relaxed jazz vocalist, an approach that’s invaluable now that Haggard’s craggy voice has been reduced to an unreliable instrument.
Haggard sashayed in place to pianist Floyd Domino’s solo on a joyful interpretation of Jimmie Rodger’s “Blue Yodel #4.” A Western swing version of “Milk Cow Blues” also clearly invigorated Haggard.
The audience responded wildly when Ben Haggard, Merle’s youngest son and the Strangers’ guitarist, perfectly reproduced the famous lick on “Mama Tried.”
The honking saxophone of Renato Caranto helped cast “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” into the setting of an early rock and roll gem. Only the Strangers’ busy playing on an overwrought arrangement of “Pancho and Lefty” was less than sweet.
Haggard played his best-known song for laughs. An amusing rendition of the 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee” made it clear that Haggard was renouncing the reactionary perspective of its narrator.
The more reflective moments included Haggard’s passionate reading of “Sing Me Back Home.” The song is about a prisoner’s request to be consoled in song as he’s led to his execution.
Haggard’s soulful performance at the Uptown Theater provided listeners with a similar, if much less harrowing, form of comfort.
Big City, Folsom Prison Blues, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, Silver Wings, Swinging Doors, Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man), If Only I Could Fly, Pancho and Lefty, Runaway Mama, That’s Just the Way Love Goes, I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, California Blues (Blue Yodel #4), Ramblin’ Fever, The Way I Am, Milk Cow Blues, The Fightin’ Side of Me, Rainbow Stew, Mama Tried, Sing Me Back Home, Okie from Muskogee