Merle Haggard playing the Charlottetown Civic Centre in 2013 at the age of 76?
Can you believe it?
I heard from some people that when they saw the show advertised, they just naturally jumped to the conclusion that it would be a Merle Haggard impersonator who would be performing here on the Island last weekend, not the actual country music legend here in the flesh.
But, I and the rest of the 2,500 in attendance at the civic centre last Friday night can tell you it was the real deal that took place before our eyes and ears.
Incidentally, when you think about it, this number is actually a fairly impressive turnout in comparison to the Island’s population. I did some math, and by the same ratio that would mean that a concert accessible to the Greater Toronto Area, for example, would bring out a total of 103,000 to see one artist in concert. Yep, it certainly makes it pretty clear: here on the Island, we love our Haggard.
And considering his nearly 40 No. 1 hits over the span of his now 50-year career, his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, his timeless music that comes from a place of honesty and depth of experience that is rare among songwriters and his reputation in general as “the greatest country artist of our times” (Jim Miller of Rolling Stone), Haggard’s continuing popularity here on P.E.I. and throughout the world all adds up.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. He’s over three-quarters of a century old, and he’s still recording and touring. That’s impressive enough in itself, but, “How was he?”
So, I can sum it up first by saying that I was, well, happily surprised. Not that I thought that Haggard was going to be haggard or something, but I simply went with no real defined expectations.
And after a hugely well-received six-song opening set by a new country artist out of Saint John named Mary Beth Marks (whose beautiful voice co-mingled with the wildly impressive acoustic guitar lead work by Richard Bourque), followed by a brief warm-up performance by Haggard’s son, Noel Lee, Merle Haggard and The Strangers were welcomed with an immediate standing ovation as their 19-song performance unfolded before the pumped-up civic centre crowd.
(And pumped up and jumped up they truly were, I’m telling you. There was even a group of women over on the left side of the floor who just jumped up and down in non-stop glee through several songs throughout the night.)
Right away, it was evident that even though Haggard’s voice is naturally a little more gruff than it once was — with the character-of-the-years whittled upon his vocal chords — it still rings out with clarity and strength. And throughout the 90-minute concert it seemed to only gain in resonance.
Behind the man decked out in a classic black western suit and a cowboy hat (with his signature Fender Telecaster with “Merle” on the shoulder strap), the seven-piece backing band of The Strangers (featuring Haggard’s son Ben on lead guitar) was polished at every turn and as tight as an oil drum out of Texas.
I was a little bit taken aback that Haggard didn’t say anything to the crowd in between songs until his 10th tune when he introduced it by saying, “I’d like to ask all the girls and the ladies to sing with me on the bridge of this song, called Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.” But his rapport with the crowd only became more engaged from that point onward.
A special moment came about, too, in this regard when the whole building even rose up in singing Happy Birthday to him, after he was given another standing ovation halfway through the night when he announced that he’d just turned the age of 76.
And through songs like Turn Me Loose, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star, Silver Wings, Today I Started Loving You Again, a sweet cover of Folsom Prison Blues, Workin’ Man Blues and, of course, Mama Tried, Merle Haggard delivered with gusto, as the Charlottetown crowd eagerly ate up all that he dished out.
Whether he’ll make it back here again remains to be seen, but with the pleased looks on the faces of those filing out into the cold air that night, I’d bet that many of those 2,500 would gladly come on back for another evening.
Next week: Dr. Hook and The Stampeders tonight at Confederation Centre of the Arts.
Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 626-1242. But he won’t be offended if you don’t.
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