I hardly ever go to concerts. I wish I went to more—I love concerts—but, you know, life. Kids, job, et al. So, on the rare occasion I do get to go to a concert, it has to be a person or band who is, like, seriously consequential. I’m not wasting my precious little concert-going time on Zydeco Zeke and the Bayou Stompers. Nothing against zydeco as a musical genre—I even kind of like it—but Zeke, you can count me out. Sorry, bud. Please don’t voodoo me.
My wife, who is really adept at gift giving, got me tickets to Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson for my birthday. In case you missed it, they were in town at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium last Saturday (Oct. 21), and it was a sold-out show. Basically a once-in-a-lifetime concert opportunity, particularly given—and I hate to point this out—Willie Nelson’s age. He’s 84. Dwight’s no spring chicken, either, but he’s not old enough to personally remember “War of the Worlds.”
I must say I was quite dismayed when I entered the building. Nobody was milling around Dwight’s merch table. Nobody. There were a bunch of people standing around Willie’s table, of course, but not one single person at Dwight’s. The merch lady had her phone out, no doubt crushing all the candy. I wanted a Dwight Yoakam T-shirt, preferably a black one with “I’m a Honky Tonk Man” in huge white letters across the chest. While there were not any quite like that, there were Dwight T-shirts. Slick-looking, too. And one could have been mine … for $40. Look, if Jesus sold T-shirts for his second coming (“The Last World Tour. Ever. Suck It, Satan.”), I would not pay $40 for one. Dwight, I love you. But I’m going on Amazon.
If you happened to be at the concert and you saw a dope pinging around in the balcony like a pinball, looking for all the world like he’d never before been in a building that contained seats, well, then, you noticed me. I couldn’t find my seat. After several fruitless attempts, I ended up asking somebody who may or may not have been an employee of Soldiers and Sailors, but whoever she was, she was most helpful. I’m sure she felt bad for me. I got to where I was supposed to be going just minutes before Dwight came on.
There’s something about Dwight Yoakam that other country singers just don’t have. I’m not sure if it’s his lyrics or his melodies, maybe his rockabilly sensibilities or his easy acknowledgement that Buck Owens is everything. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of America, and he translates that heartbeat into music. The word that comes to mind is “true.” How many country music awards shows are there these days? Fifteen? Thirty? Thousands? Country music is always giving itself high-fives. And though Dwight has shown up on his fair share of awards shows, he somehow seems outside of the giant country clique. Above it, actually. Dwight eschews cookie-cutter, which is increasingly difficult to do in any musical genre. He does for country what Bruce Springsteen does for rock and Bob Dylan for folk. He directs the genre, in other words, and not the other way around. Dwight transcends.
Basically, I’ve been waiting to see Dwight Yoakam live in person since probably the first time I heard one of his songs. It was a real moment for me when he stepped onstage. His band wore matching glittery jackets, but Dwight wore what he always does. Jeans, jeans jacket, boots, low cowboy hat. Classic Dwight.
You know how when you go see a big act and all you’re really hoping is that they play their best stuff, their biggest hits, the ones you can sing along to? So many times it doesn’t go that way. But that’s what Dwight did! He ripped through “Little Sister” and “Fast as You,” probably his two songs that owe the most to rock ‘n’ roll. He played them, and really all the songs, like he was setting kerosene on fire. Massive sound with fresh, urgent energy. Plus, the man just looked like he was having fun. Pretty much every song was accompanied by his trademark shaky leg. This was the bad guy from “Sling Blade”? You could barely tell.
After Dwight and an intermission, Willie came out. He walked onstage to the predictable screams of a few generations of fans. I saw a kid in probably about fifth grade. A row in front of me, there was an old lady with white hair and hearing aids. There can be no doubt Willie Nelson is a legend and an icon. Now, what I’m about to say is caveated by this: He’s old. He’s 84 years old. That’s really old. With the exception of “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” which was absent from the set list, Willie played all my favorite Willie songs. “Beer for My Horses,” “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” “On the Road Again” and on and on. The thing was, he didn’t so much sing the songs as he chanted them or, at times, spoke them over Trigger’s gorgeous tone. Absolutely forgivable, of course. Far be it from me or anybody to criticize Willie Nelson. The man can do what he wants. I’d only hoped for more of his voice.
But almost as if to make up for his diminished vocal prowess, he demonstrated his chops on the guitar in a way I’ve never heard before. One particular musical breakdown was filled with almost jazzlike improvisation and a syncopation that seemed to boss around the other instruments in his stripped-down band.
At any rate, if you weren’t at the concert, I’m sorry you missed it. You’ll be able to catch Dwight Yoakam again, I’m sure. Willie Nelson maybe, but hurry. The two of them together again? I highly doubt it.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.