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Merle Haggard, Wilile Nelson, Ray Price age gracefully

Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, September 4, 2007

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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The combined ages of Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price is 225. And as their joint CD released earlier this year is called, they may well be "Last of the Breed."

These guys are the real deal when it comes to their brand of country music and showed so again on a stop during the second leg of their tour.

This was not a night of creaky old men acting their age in some sort of golden moldies show. This was a night of musical joy from all three artists, who generally stuck to their tried-and-true hits, usually playing on their own, but occasionally together.

Price started off the evening with a 45-minute set of his songs, starting with Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose."

Quite amazing for a man of Price's age - 81, but the Texan was in fine vocal form all night. Standing straight up, not moving around all that much, Price never showed his age vocally, able to hit all the notes and sound real good.

He sang Harlan Howard's "Heartaches by the Number" and "Crazy Arms," a song that hit number 1 for 20 weeks in 1956. There were no real surprises in his set as he stayed with his hits, but that's okay because probably almost all of the people there had never seen Price before. He said he had never played Boston!

Haggard, 70, maintains a very active recording (he releases his first ever bluegrass album next month) and touring schedule. The Hag sings about blue collar folks and down and outers of society ("Workingman's Blues" and "Mama Tried"). There's no glossing of life with Haggard.

He sings well, but his guitar playing is what particularly stands out. He plays a lot of lead lines and does a great job of adding a spark to the songs, without going overboard. In fact, it would have been nice to hear Haggard play longer lead guitar lines as he really is a sharp player.

His backing band - The Strangers - was solid as well, with the drummer setting a simple, but steady beat.

Nelson closed the evening battered guitar in hand as usual. Also usual was his set of songs, starting with what else - "Whiskey River - and going through songs such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "Angel Flying Close to the Ground," "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (fortunately without Julia Iglesias on board)," "Georgia On My Mind" and "Mamma Don't Let Your babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."

Like Haggard, Nelson is a dynamite guitar player, an underrated one at that. His singing isn't exactly straightforward either as he doesn't necessarily always land on the beat, but puts his own phrasing on the words to good effect.

As usual, Nelson's band remains ever strong with Paul English on drums, Jody Payne on guitar and Mickey Raphael on harp standing out.

Nelson said he played three new songs at the end of the set, although it seemed that one was at lest a few years old.

The problem was that this American icon had gone too long with the tried and true. He has a large body of work and remains an extremely active recording artist even today at age 74. It would be quite nice if he went beyond his familiar songs.

Having recorded a solid new album together, one would think that this would be an evening of a lot of give and take between Price, Haggard and Nelson (Nelson and Haggard did a nice job on "Pancho and Lefty"), but the sad part was they only occasionally played together on stage.

Haggard played a lot of guitar during Nelson's stage time, but, in general, the three stars limited their time together. The sparks perhaps could have flown in a real rare treat, but, instead, the aging Price, Haggard and Nelson were seemingly content to do their own thing and do it well.