Several personalities from a country radio station were flummoxed before Dwight Yoakam’s free concert at the KC Live stage in the Power & Light District on Thursday. They attempted to entertain an audience of several thousand with a lyrics contest.
The participants in the challenge were unable to sing along with current and older hits from the contemporary country station’s playlist. Their lack of familiarity with pop-oriented country shouldn’t have surprised the disc jockeys.
Fans of Dwight Yoakam — one of the most uncompromising honky-tonk artists of the past 25 years — probably don’t care for the commercial side of country.
Yoakam shook up the country music establishment in the 1980s with a staunchly traditional approach that was based on the sounds of rough-and-tumble troubadours of earlier decades. Most of his repertoire still consists of songs about drinking, dancing, cheating and broken hearts.
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He played four songs from his 1986 debut album on Thursday: a faithful cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” a searing take on “Ring of Fire,” the agonizing barroom lament “It Won’t Hurt” and his defiant statement of purpose “Guitars, Cadillacs.”
Once a scandalously suggestive dancer, Yoakam’s moves are now more deliberate than daring. He used his rangy voice to evoke Elvis Presley even when he wasn’t singing the Presley hits “Suspicious Minds” and “Little Sister.”
A burly four-piece backing band kept the sound varied by adding accordion to “Streets of Bakersfield” and fiddle to “Little Ways” and “Honky Tonk Man.”
They battled shrill feedback and booming sound throughout their 85-minute set. The loud sounds that bled from adjacent establishments added to the cacophony.
The odds were stacked against the opening act Luke Bell. Chris Stapleton, the accomplished singer-songwriter originally slated to open the show, canceled because of illness.
Bell, a purveyor of what he described as “good old-time hillbilly music” was roundly ignored by most of the audience. The Nashville-based artist deserved better. Bell is committed to honoring the neglected legacy of Ernest Tubb in the much the same way that Yoakam rekindled interest in Buck Owens.
“Liar” was the best of several songs Yoakam performed from his fine new album “Second Hand Heart.” The song’s melodic jangle — equal parts rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins and 1964-era the Beatles — is as impressive as Yoakam’s biggest hits.
Yoakam may no longer be embraced by the programmers of country radio stations, but his impressive concert Thursday proved that he’s as formidable as ever.
SET LIST: Dim Lights, Thick Smoke; Please, Please Baby; Little Sister; Streets of Bakersfield; It Won't Hurt; This Drinkin' Will Kill Me; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart; Ain't That Lonely Yet; Liar; Ring of Fire; (unknown); She; Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose; Honky Tonk Man; A Thousand Miles From Nowhere; It Only Hurts When I Cry; Little Ways; Guitars, Cadillacs; Fast as You; A Heart Like Mine; Suspicious Mind.