Concert Review: Merle Haggard at the Birchmere
Merle Haggard is at an age when most of his contemporaries are enjoying retirement. At 74, the grizzled singer may have lost some hair, but he hasn’t lost his country chops, as he proved Monday night in front of a worshipful crowd that included everyone from little girls in tutus and cowboy boots to guys who looked like they stepped off the Sons of Anarchy set. Though Haggard was on stage for barely more than an hour, he hit most of his biggest hits, plus a few lesser known gems.
His set was well honed, right down to the point where he interrupted himself midsong and amended the lyrics of “Are the Good Times Really Over:” nearly 30 years after the song was released, Hag’s realized a joint was “a nice place to be.” Haggard took a few requests, but when an audience member requested “Mama Tried” ten minutes into the show, Haggard replied “I don’t want to blow my wad in the beginning.” He played it any way, and later obliged a kid’s request for “Rainbow Stew.” He occasionally referred to the teleprompter operated by one of his sons, joking about the wordiness of his music: “[These are] songs I wrote in my 20s,” he deadpanned. “And here I am in my 40s…”
Haggard’s backing band, The Strangers, were sharp, especially teenage lead guitarist Ben Haggard, who tore up the stage with his sparkly silver Telecaster. At 74, his dad is no slouch either, flawlessly delivering guitar licks and playing a mean fiddle on “Working in Tennessee” and Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa” (from one of country’s best tribute records). Closing songs “Okie from Muskogee” and companion song “The Fightin’ Side of Me” were met with raucous applause as well as a few differing audience opinions about the current state of the federal government.
Despite the short set and high ticket prices—the evening averaged out at about a dollar per minute—it was a fantastic night of music with one of country’s finest songwriters and performers, who, for an all-too-brief time, brought a taste of Bakersfield to the Beltway.
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down
Folsom Prison Blues
That’s the Way Love Goes
Honky Tonk Night Time Man
Old Man from the Mountain
If We Make It Through December
Are the Good Times Really Over
Working in Tennessee
Take Me Back to Tulsa
The Way I Am
The Bottle Let Me Down
Okie from Muskogee
The Fightin’ Side of Me
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