A severe storm forced a dream triple bill of Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam and Robert Earl Keen at Starlight Theatre on Saturday to remain an elusive fantasy. The deluge that followed sets by Yoakam and Keen led to the cancellation of the country legend’s headlining appearance.
While many in the audience of almost 8,000 received a thorough soaking before Nelson’s portion of the concert was called off, the venue was almost full for appearances by Yoakam and Keen.
Yoakam still wears the skintight jeans and cowboy hat that turned heads when his debut release “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.” topped the country albums chart in 1986, but the California-based artist was more committed to paying homage to his heroes than in assuming the role of a sex symbol. Yoakam has always been a dedicated revivalist — his first hit was a cover of the 1956 Johnny Horton song “Honky Tonk Man” — but Saturday’s outing was more like a tribute show than a showcase for his original material.
Supported his outstanding four-piece band, Yoakam opened with a muscular cover of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie.” He paid homage to Elvis Presley with his hit version of the 1961 single “Little Sister” and dedicated “Streets of Bakersfield” to the late country star Buck Owens.
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Heartfelt renditions of four Merle Haggard songs formed the core of the 50-minute set. A gentle translation of “Silver Wings” elicited appreciative sighs while plaintive pedal steel guitar solos bolstered “”Swinging Doors” and “Mama Tried.” Yoakam spoke at length about “Okie From Muskogee” before playing the controversial song. Recalling that Haggard had told him the hit was intended to be “tongue in cheek,” Yoakam implied that the societal rifts that made the song resonate in 1969 are just as prevalent today.
An ongoing flurry of anxious activity on the fringes of the stage repeatedly distracted Yoakam. A cover of Nelson’s “Me and Paul” was cut short when Yoakam said that someone backstage was displeased with the selection. The misconstrued signals of a stagehand also contributed to a couple false starts.
Keen and his six-piece backing band spent an hour re-creating his beloved Texas roadhouse songs like “The Road Goes On Forever” and “Gringo Honeymoon” with the admirable efficiency of jukebox. The raggedness of Keen’s unvarnished bray was offset by stellar fiddle and mandolin accents. While the rainout of Nelson was disappointing, Keen’s fans took it stride. They know that the motto of Keen’s signature song applies to the career of the octogenarian country legend: “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”
Dwight Yoakam set list: Little Queenie; Please, Please Baby; Little Sister; Streets of Bakersfield; Silver Wings; Swinging Doors; Mama Tried; Okie From Muskogee; Me and Paul; It Won’t Hurt; I’ll Be Gone; Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose; Honky Tonk Man; A Thousand Miles From Nowhere; Guitars, Cadillacs.
Robert Earl Keen set list: I’ll Go On Downtown; What I Really Mean; Feelin’ Good Again; Gringo Honeymoon; Shades of Gray; Ride; I Gotta Go; Dreadful Selfish Crime; I Know You Rider; I’m Comin’ Home; The Road Goes On Forever.