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Merle Haggard, Arlington Theatre, Santa Barbara, 10/1/09

Seeing Merle Haggard live is in many ways (at least for me) similar to what it used to be like seeing the Grateful Dead.

Now that some of you are quite possibly cursing me, let me elaborate before the hate mail begins..

First, you never know what songs will be played, as Merle never makes a set list-he just calls the tunes as he feels, making each show a unique experience from the get-go. Secondly, the songwriting is first rate, and it’s easy to apply the songs to your own life, be it past, present or future.

Most importantly, there’s a connection established that is absolutely in and of the moment. Up, down, on or off, each night is not so much a ‘show’, but an entry into the diary, and Merle, the band, the audience, and the venue all play a part.

The Arlington is a beautiful, relatively small venue that dates back to the 20’s, built in the ‘mission’ style of architecture one finds up and down the coast of California. The acoustics, the cushy old seats, and everything about it encourages one to sit back, relax, and pay attention to the music, and it’s in this type of venue Merle is free to explore some of his quieter, deeper music, and we as listeners are allowed to appreciate each subtle nuance of the thing of beauty that is his voice.

This was the last show of the current tour, and last shows can be stellar blowouts, or ‘let’s get this over with and go home’ non-events for any touring band. We got a bit of both, as the show was a bit shorter than I’m used to seeing (word was Merle was feeling a bit tired) but we also were treated to a brand new song, and some fine renditions of personal favorites, including a hold-your-breath (and complete) version of ‘Kern River, a note-perfect and road-weary ‘White Line Fever’, the tender and rarely played ‘Farmer’s Daughter’ (which was an audience request) and a heart-felt ‘If I Could Only Fly’ delivered with wistfullness and melancholy as only Merle can do.

The subtlety and detail provided by the Strangers (augmented on guitar by Merle’s son Ben, who’s solos and ‘comping’ prowess belie his young age) can only come with the experience of many years on the road backing up this living legend. Nothing is out of place, and not a single superfluous note is played. Yes, there were a couple miscues (as when ‘Lonesome Fugitive’ ended prematurely) but these are barely noticed and easily forgiven. Norm Hamlet, Merle’s long-time steel player and bandleader, is an absolute treasure, and one could easily just focus on his masterful and sensitive playing for the entire evening.

Merle’s sense of humor was firmly in place, as was his knack for stirring the pot (no pun intended) as when prior to the obligatory ‘Okie From Muskogee’ he said ‘now when it gets to the part about marijuana, I know this is the marijuana capitol of the world-but there’s many parts of California that claim to be the marijuana capitol of the world. Humboldt might lay claim to that title-I think the tobacco companies have all bought land up there..I’ve bought some too!’

Feel free to draw your own conclusions…

More than ever, Merle Haggard defies category-but one thing’s for certain-he is truly the definition of a ‘national treasure’, and if he’s within a half days’ drive from your home, don’t pass up the opportunity to see him while we’ve still got him.

Set list:

  • Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
  • White Line Fever
  • Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star
  • Workin’ Man’s Blues
  • Silver Wings
  • Mama Tried
  • That’s the Way Love Goes
  • Are the Good Times Really Over
  • Love’s Always Pretty When It’s New (new song)
  • Rainbow Stew
  • California Blues
  • Take Me Back to Tulsa (on fiddle)
  • Right or Wrong (on fiddle)
  • Farmer’s Daughter (audience request)
  • Lonesome Fugitive
  • Okie From Muskogee
  • If I Could Only Fly
  • Fightin’ Side of Me
  • I’ll Fly Away

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