With each act turning in an hour-long set on the opening night of this summer tour, there was something for different stripes of country - none of it particularly commercial. When you hear a pedal steel these days, it's almost a novelty. It wasn't tonight.
Earle perhaps presaged what the evening would be like - heavy on the familiar, although he started with the title track of his most recent release, "So You Wanna Be an Outlaw," which rocked far more than does the recording, and played five songs from there. In fact, his first four songs came from there.
Earle, who just in town four months ago at the small club, City Winery, was far louder on this evening. Having a band at your fingertips will have that effect. The Mastersons - husband-and-wife Chris on guitar and Eleanor Whitmore mainly on fiddle, were both superb with the fiddle particularly adding to the vibe.
Earle's voice has grown a bit gravelly over time, not all that much of a surprise. Whether new or old (""Guitar Town," "Copperhead Road," "The Devil's Right Hand"), Earle, like Williams and Yoakam to come, made the music sound timeless.
Williams mixed it up a lot during her stint with her Louisiana drawl (she was sometimes hard to understand) covering gospel rock on one hand and singing with a fury on the ever angry "Changed the Locks." Williams raised the ante on "Foolishness" where she decried "I don't need racism...sexism...I need freedom...peace...in my life." The message resonated well.
Williams was a super trooper because for three songs in the middle of her set, a fireworks display lit up the night sky with the booms clearly heard. Williams soldiered on, later praising the fireworks.
Williams concluded strongly with her encore of "Right With God," with its gospel bent abandoned for rock at the end. Ever the songwriter, Williams helped extend the musical bounds of the evening for a strong outing.
Yoakam came out on fire with a big big sound thanks to his lead guitarist merging twang and steel. Yoakam's 16-song set was heavy on covers, but here, too, he showed what differentiates country of his ilk with the commercial acts of today. The latter will cover rock songs, which have nothing to do with country. Yoakam, on the other hand, started with the late Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," which in Yoakam's hands at least had a rootsy feel.
But he went hard core country with "Streets of Bakersfield" from Buck Owens, "The Bottle Let Me Down" from The Hag," "Honky Tonk Man" from Johnny Horton and a hot closing encore of Joe and Rose Lee Maphis' "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud Loud Music)."
At 61, Yoakam's lovely baritone was in full force, remaining a thing of beauty, while he did his usual shimmy, shaking, twirling and extending his guitar out for good effect.
With a set that tended to mainly look back in time - Yoakam played a bunch of his own chestnuts including the honky tonking "Guitars, Cadillacs" and the Roy Orbison-sounding "Fast As You" - Yoakam also threw in two brand new singles, "Pretty Horses" and "Then Here Came Monday" with the latter making more of a musical dent.
Yoakam operated at breakneck speed, almost as if trying to get all the songs in before curfew. His set was actually the shortest of the night, at under 55 minutes. It was almost a bit dizzying as he rarely took a break, often seguing from one song right into the next.
Like his counterparts earlier in the evening, though, Yoakam's set was filled with the good sounds of country as knew it.
Unfortunately, while the quality of the music may have been high, the attendance was not with the 5,000-person venue perhaps about half-filled. Too bad because this was a night with a lot of highs.