Before a raucous crowd that turned the Emerald Queen Casino’s cavernous showroom into a roadhouse Saturday night, country legend Merle Haggard proved that he’s still got something special to offer his fans.
Throughout a tight, 80-minute set, Haggard amiably bantered with the vocal peanut gallery and turned back the clock to unleash spirited versions of some of his most well-known songs. Haggard even made a fashion statement by wearing a hoodie emblazoned with “I Love Haters” underneath his suit jacket.
From the minute Haggard got his band, The Strangers, going on his 1981 hit “Big City,” the reverence the sold-out room had for the man was clear. Equally clear was the talent of his band, led by his son, Ben, on lead guitar.
Haggard and his band gained momentum on “Mama Tried,” turning the career-making song into a nifty piece of restrained country rock. A couple of songs later, Haggard proved that he can still play a little Telecaster with an authoritative solo on the ever-popular “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”
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Fans hoping to see Haggard dust off some B-sides and obscure cuts likely left disappointed. He wisely stuck to his biggest songs, including a barn-burning version of “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” before slowing things down with “Train of Life.”
The most atmospheric moment came on “Pancho and Lefty,” but was unfortunately one of a few times Saturday when the sound mix failed to highlight Haggard’s voice and left things a bit muddled.
Haggard turns 77 next month, and he made a couple of pretty funny off-color jokes about the joys of getting older that had the crowd in stitches. He also told the story of losing a guitar he donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame during a flood, which eventually became a song, “Working in Tennessee.”
If you were a betting person — and there were probably more than a few in the audience — the good money was on Haggard finishing his set with the seminal “Okie From Muskogee,” which got another moment in the sun with a live performance at the Grammys in January.
“Did someone say they legalized that here?” he asked, referencing the song’s famous first line about Okies from Muskogee not smoking marijuana.
The crowd erupted, and like he had all night, Haggard played the moment perfectly.
Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails