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Haggard keeps it tight

Ink-N-Iron Festival, Long Beach, Cal., June 6, 2014

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

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Much like seeing Willie Nelson - another aging country icon - last summer, Merle Haggard's voice appeared to need a little time to warm up before it sounded like the amazing instrument it is. However, when you bring a 21-set of songs - and mostly all hits - it allows more than enough time to get sounding good.

Haggard appeared during the first day of a three-day tattoo and music festival and capped a bill that also included fine sets from Bastard Sons Of Johnny Cash and Junior Brown.

Backed by a relatively sparse band of Strangers, The Hag kicked off with "Big City" and closed with the obligatory "Okie from Muskogee," with plenty of highlights in between. It amounted to a fair overview of Haggard's multifaceted career, with plenty of ballads, such as the wonderfully sad "Kern River," and some swing via "Take Me Back to Tulsa," which allowed Merle to saw a little fiddle. He dedicated "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" to the drunks in the audience, and with the guy in front of me who was so hammered he even had trouble standing in one place, there were plenty of folks that precisely resembled that remark.

In addition to a sometimes weaker singing voice, Haggard - who wore his now omnipresent sunglasses - doesn't appear to be as spontaneous a bandleader as he once was. There was a time when The Hag would let his shows turn into extended swing music sets or almost all quiet ballads, if he felt it. He let his mood prevail.

Nowadays, though, he appears to pre-plan his set lists and stick tightly with them. It was also fascinating how much room he gave his son and lead guitarist, Ben Haggard. Most of the time, Ben took the guitar solos, although sometimes father and son would harmonize together. (By the way, if you've ever seen pictures of the younger Merle, Ben - at his young age - is a doppelganger for his dad. Scary!).

There was a slight sense of let-down seeing Haggard in SoCal again. The last time this writer saw him was at StageCoach, and he received a kind of hero's welcome. This concert was not quite so celebratory. Nonetheless, any time one can witness a Merle Haggard concert it's an opportunity to be in the very presence of true country music royalty. With the Queen Mary has his backdrop, the scene was set perfectly.