"Pardon me," said the grinning cowboy as he slid past, a plastic cup of beer balanced in each hand. The happy bastard had fortitude, I'll give him that. I'm not sure if the line for beer at the Maritime Hall always stretches the entire width of the room, but I didn't need a drink badly enough to stand in it, that was certain.
Merle Haggard marked the first of a wave of big-name country shows hitting the Maritime Hall over the next several weeks, with both Willie Nelson/Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Waylon Jennings/Jessi Colter evenings to follow. Folks I spoke to had traveled from as far as Felton, Sacramento, and Reno to see Merle, and the Maritime Hall was doing what it could to make this an auspicious beginning to what they surely hope will be a profitable relationship with area country fans. Video of the opening bands was projected onto four surfaces in the wide hall, including two enormous movie screens on either end, utilizing multiple cameras to create a live edit of the proceedings. The entire video presentation, due to the less-than-overwhelming size of the room, did more to endear with overkill than enhance the experience. Nevertheless, excitement was evident in the hall amid billowing clouds of Marlboro smoke.
The Geezers were densely populating the stage when I arrived -- all three guitars, fiddle, bass, banjo, lap steel, pedal steel, and singer churning away at what they call "Classic Country." And I suppose it was classic in some sense, but neither the sense of sight nor sound were it. Although they performed a fine selection of country standbys with pluck and enthusiasm, their sound was marred by uneven rhythms, unvarying and occasionally off-key harmonies, as well as technical difficulties that should have been corrected far more expediently. The Geezers were not without charm, but they seemed more thrilled to be playing this show than prepared to do it.
The Bulls, unscheduled replacements for an ill Rose Maddox, took the stage after a brief interval. (In fact, the time in between sets was pleasantly short all night -- a trait far too uncommon in what passes for show biz hereabouts.) The Bulls are a fine professional contemporary country music group. If I say much more than that I risk becoming snotty, my country purism seeping onto the page like so much selenium into the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge of fair analysis. I'll risk what might seem like damnation: I enjoyed the Bulls in person far more than I ever could on record, where the pleasures of watching good players play would be removed and all resemblance to mediocre Top 40 bands of the last 20 years would stand in naked relief. Their set was enjoyable in its brevity.
But really, everyone was there to see Merle Haggard anyway. It was as if Arnold Schwarzenegger had walked into Planet Hollywood unannounced, so profound was the ovation that heralded Merle's arrival. His band had preceded him onstage and set up a slow, slinky, walking melodic line that acted as an apt prelude for the appearance of one of country music's biggest names. When he stepped to the mike, the crowd simply went apeshit. About halfway through the first song, "Workin' Man Blues," I began to suspect that all that reverence was perhaps misplaced. Merle seemed distracted, and it appeared that too many years of hard living had turned his famously suede basso voice into a reedy, raspy chirp. Ah, but the man had yet to warm up. He hit his stride in the second song, and for the next two hours Merle slid up and down his vocal range with authority.
Merle's Strangers were as fine a bunch of players as you could hope to hear, quietly exercising a virtuosity that supported and surrounded Haggard's sometimes off-kilter delivery. It was precisely this sporadic irregularity of phrasing and pace that I found truly impressive. You may see the current Rolling Stones substituting frenetic energy for a thoughtful interpretation of "Tumbling Dice," because after performing a song for 20 years an artful facsimile of enthusiasm is the best they can muster. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, can sing "Silver Wings" as if he just thought up the words when the band started playing the first notes. At times, he left the audience singing without him, and dropped his lyrics in places that made the song sound new, deeply considered, and earnestly felt. With or without a 40-foot inflatable saxophone onstage. (Speaking of saxophones, the one unwelcome member of the Strangers was the horn player, who alternated between uncomfortably loud blasts on a trumpet and a tenor sax. His contributions were about as appropriate as boots on a snake, and almost as bizarre.)
Haggard was a loose and comfortable frontman, taking his time between songs but never lagging. Classic tunes spanning the length of his career came one after another, "Swinging Doors," "That's the Way Love Goes," "Mama Tried," "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," "Big City," many with Merle's languorous lead guitar stretching out into his allotted eight bars like twisted fence wire.
The set had a few unrehearsed moments that only strengthened the impression of Haggard's honesty and candor. When a lyrical memory lapse (one of several) stopped a song in its first few seconds, a sly, knowing chuckle emerged from Haggard's lips, completely charming the audience. Later, after confessing that his backup singer was an ex-wife, the two proceeded to bicker about the number of wives he's had since. The aggrieved "Ha!" with which Merle ended the discussion spoke volumes. The penultimate song of the evening (which closed with an inexplicable throwaway) was the classic "Okie From Muskogee," a song I had half expected him not to play. He introduced it as a song for his father, because Dad "didn't give a shit." Seeing it performed, flanked by projections of pot plants and swirling psychedelic lights (the same lights, it should be noted, that swirled inexplicably throughout the show), etched a surreal impression in my mind that is unlikely to fade anytime soon. The old chestnut was performed with the same joy and focused concentration as the rest of this truly great set, serving as yet another reminder of how well Merle Haggard rises to the challenge implied in the words "living legend.