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Haggard turns back the clock

Bob Hope Theatre, Stockton, Cal., October 14, 2006

Reviewed by Michael Sudhalter

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Merle Haggard turned the fancy theatre into an old-fashioned honky-tonk cranking out many of his classic hits.

"We're just an old beer joint band - we're not used to nice places like this," Haggard told the crowd of about 1,000 fans at the historic venue during a 75-minute set.

Haggard, playing in his native San Joaquin Valley, mixed classic country with a good sense of humor as he performed a slew of hits, backed by his eight-piece band, The Strangers.

He didn't perform any songs from his most recent album "Chicago Wind" nor did he sing "The Fightin' Side of Me", the lyrics of which were featured on souvenir T-shirts in the lobby. Perhaps the latter omission could be attributed to Haggard's current attitude toward the Bush administration. During "That's The Way Love Goes," he sang the words ‘don't worry' then injected "that's what George Bush says."

The show had several innuendos that pointed towards the singer's displeasure with the political landscape and the perceived loss of personal freedoms. He said dancing had been banned in a couple places in Texas and could be banned everywhere. He also paused during a song and addressed the audience "friends and conservatives."

Once the musical face of the pro-Vietnam War crowd, Haggard joked that he was dumb as a rock when he wrote "Okie from Muskogee," which received the largest applause of the evening.

Politics aside, Haggard moved through his collection of hits with his distinct voice and classic country backing. A pleasant surprise was a saxophone player in the band, who performed a pair of brief solos during the set.

Haggard fittingly opened up with "Big City" in one of California's largest inland cities and was excellent on "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Silver Wings" and "I'll Just Stay Here and Drink."

The veteran performed mixed a little bit of yodeling into the show before two of the set's best songs, "Are The Good Times Really Over?" and "If We Make It Through December."

He joked that his band is so old that they have nurses, not roadies and admitted that times have changed since he wrote "Workin' Man's Blues," which featured some excellent guitar picking.

Instead of closing with his signature song "Okie," Haggard asked the audience "Y'all miss Johnny Cash? I do too." and finished the performance with an impressive duet of the Cash/June Carter song "Jackson" with one of his backup singers.