here was a time not all that long ago when you wouldn't have found Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard fans coexisting happily in the same room together. But the times they have most certainly changed, and somehow these two artists don't seem so unalike one another any longer.
Folk music is just one of many genre labels associated with Dylan, as his sound incorporates almost every imaginable American style - including country. Similarly, Haggard starts with country, but he by no means ends there. His songs rank right up there with the best of the singer/songwriter wing, and his band, The Strangers, can play blues and jazz just as well as country.
And besides, politically speaking, Dylan was never quite as liberal as some of his staunchest supporters might lead you to believe, nor is Haggard anyplace close to being as conservative as his much-misunderstood hit, "Okie From Muskogee," might suggest. Their artistic common bond is far stronger than any superficial cultural differences, and this double bill offered living proof of that.
Dylan's serious demeanor distinctly contrasted with Haggard's more easygoing stage manner tonight. Supported by a stellar band, which sported two guitarists and sometimes two fiddles, Dylan played a set that was comprised of both old and new tunes.
And, as usual, even some of his familiar oldies came off sounding brand new, due to his constant need to continually reinterpret his own work. His croak of a voice came off harsh during the country-rock of "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" early on, but he was right on target when enunciating the biting words of both "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Masters Of War."
Whenever he needed to squeeze many words into measures at a fast clip, he wasn't required to hold notes and truly sing, and thus sounded a whole lot better. Instrumentally, he stood at a piano and colored his performances with plenty of harmonica. He never once touched his guitar.
The song pacing varied greatly. He geared down "This Wheel's On Fire" to an easygoing, coasting neutral, yet he closed his show with the rollicking rockabilly swing of "Summer Days." He played just two encore selections: "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and "All Along The Watchtower." However, he did not do The Hag's "Sing Me Back Home," which he has been including occasionally during this tour. Also, sadly, he and The Had never sang together.
Haggard jokingly referred to his band as nothing more than a "beer joint" group and noted that he felt out of place appearing before what he termed a "refined" audience. In truth, Haggard and The Strangers, which is celebrating 40 years together, is the champagne of country music.
With only a mere 45 minutes of stage time to work with, Haggard mainly stuck with popular hits.
But oh what hits they were!
He opened with "Big City," then proceeded to include "Silver Wings," "Mama Tried" and "That's The Way Love Goes," among others. And while Dylan is the master of concert surprises, Haggard's inclusion of Willie Nelson's "It Will Always Be," which he then turned into a crowd sing-along, certainly seemed to come out of nowhere.
Haggard also proved that he's no slouch as a guitarist, by taking many opportunities to solo during his set. As with Dylan, just one show - and especially an open slot, at that - is never enough time to get to every favorite.
Amos Lee opened this show with a strong, albeit brief, set of soul-infused songs. He came off as a little more ruff 'n ready version of Jeff Buckley, with heartfelt love songs like "Bottom Of The Barrel."
Although they've each traveled strikingly contrasting roads to get here, both Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan have somehow finally met at the same American music intersection. Ultimately, tonight wasn't about politics or culture, but songs. And the makeup of this audience represented cultural integration of the best kind.