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REVIEW: Merle Haggard entertains, his way, at Van Wezel

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Haggard HT 2014

Merle Haggard and The Strangers performed Wednesday, January 29, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. (January 28, 2014, Herald-Tribune Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Merle Haggard could have run through his No. 1 country hits and made the sold-out crowd at Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall very happy. But the singer-songwriter eschews setlists and pandering, and on Wednesday he chose songs that have  meant something to him over his 50 years of recording.  Some of  his selections may have been unfamiliar to the audience  - but the result was a unique performance  from the 76-year-old American icon.

The 1,743 in attendance didn’t hear Hag play the popular saloon song “Swinging Doors” or the jingoistic anthem “The Fightin’ Side of Me." Instead, though, they heard heartfelt readings of the Haggard originals “Footlights” and “Thirty Again,” a pair of meditations on aging. The first is a tear-in-your-beer number and the second, sprinkled with humor, might have still made some in attendance wipe away a manly tear. Haggard also paid tribute to his heroes with superb covers of songs by  Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Johnny Cash.

Interview: Merle Haggard is high

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Merle Haggard performed Wednesday, January 29, at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. (January 28, 2014, Herald-Tribune Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Haggard must have been in good spirits Wednesday because he added 15 minutes to his 60-minute performance. Backed by his ace,  eight-piece band The Strangers, which these days includes his wife, Theresa, on backup vocals and his young son Ben on lead guitar,  Haggard took the stage dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans, a dark sport coat, darker shades and a matching fedora. Haggard looked as cool as he sounded.

The trick to Haggard making each performance special, at least from what the audience saw Wednesday, is that for the songs all his fans know – such as the opener “Big City,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Mama Tried” – his vocals are a controlled whisper,  not much more, and that’s OK.  When he performs the stirring title track from his 2000 album “If I Could Only Fly” (penned by Blaze Foley) he sings in the sonorous style that made him a star four decades ago. He can’t hit all the high notes, but the emotion goes right to the gut.

Haggard, who told me in the interview to advance the show that he enjoys marijuana, also has a great sense of humor. On his self-penned 1981 smash “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” he sang the famous chorus of “I wish Coke was still cola and a joint was a bad place to be” and then ordered the band to stop. He flashed a wicked grin and sang the line again, this time altering the line to wishing “a joint was a nice place to be.” The crowd, a  mix of baby boomers, seniors and even quite a few young folks, roared with laughter.

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Band Members, from left, Norm Hamlet, steel guitar, 49 years with the band, Merle's son Ben Haggard, 21, guitar and lead guitarist, Merle Haggard, lead vocals, lead guitar and fiddle, Merle's wife, Theresa Haggard, backing vocals, Jimmy Crisp, on drums, Scotty Joss, fiddle, mandolin, guitarist and backing vocals, T-Bone, bass guitar, Floyd Domino, on piano and Doug Colosio, on keyboards. (January 28, 2014, Herald-Tribune Staff Photo by Thomas Bender)

Haggard closed the show with his signature song “Okie from Muskogee,” the same tune he performed Sunday on the Grammys with Blake Shelton. In the late 1960s, the song served as a hymn for the hippie-hating Nixon set. Haggard introduced it, again smiling like a dear, old devil, by saying, “This next number is about marijuana.” He also mentioned that he wrote it from his father’s perspective. Then came the opening line, “We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” The crowd cheered and Haggard smiled and everything seemed right.  The crowd had witnessed a living legend perform, largely on his own terms, but with plenty of entertainment factor.  We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Selist
1. Big City
2. Silver Wings
3. I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink
4. The Bottle Let Me Down
5. Mama Tried
6. White Line Fever
7. That's The Way Love Goes (Lefty Frizzell cover)
8. Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)
9. Workin' Man Blues
10. If I Could Only Fly (Blaze Foley cover)
11. They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down
12. Motorcycle Cowboy
13. Footlights
14. Thirty Again
15. Kern River
16. California Blues (Jimmie Rodgers cover)
17. Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt cover)
18. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash cover)
19. Working in Tennessee
20. Take Me Back to Tulsa (Bob Wills cover)
21. Okie from Muskogee



Wade_Tatangelo_by_Mike_Lang_HT_06212013 Wade Tatangelo has been an entertainment reporter, columnist and reviewer for more than a decade at publications nationwide. He is a Hershey, Pa., native who grew up in Tampa and graduated from the University of South Florida. Wade joined the Herald-Tribune in 2013. He can be reached by email or call (941) 361-4955.
Last modified: January 30, 2014
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