Real Country Near 66
It was worth it. “Last of the Breed” could be the Rat Pack of country music: Ray Price assumes the sophisticated role of Sinatra, Merle Haggard is the playful conscience who takes a lot of pride in who he is and Willie Nelson is everyman’s best buddy who knows everybody loves somebody sometime.
All three men stand tall in the Country Music Hall of Fame.Â The trio is backed by the Western Swing band Asleep at the Wheel. I wanted to catch “Last of the Breed” in the event it ended abruptly, as in the case of the 1988 Rat Pack reunion tour which only made it to Minneapolis and Chicago before Dean Martin went home.
The first time the “Last of the Breed’ felt unique wasn’t until down the home stretch when Haggard sang “Okie From Muskogee” and got to the line about “the long haired hippies out in San Franciso,” Nelson sauntered on stage with red bandana and his braids nearly to his beltline. The crowd of cowboys, bikers, old hippies, outlaws and rodeo riders roared with approval at a joint called Tim’s Toyota Center. The 5,300-seat venue opened in October and this was the first sell out in its history.Â
And there wasn’t much different about the “Last of the Breed” show at the outset.Â Price opened up with his own 35 minute set with his own band of Cherokee Cowboys. He set the bar for vocal performance. At 81 years old Price’s smooth pipes are in amazing shape, especially on ballads like “For The Good Times,” “Make The World Go Away” and “Release Me.” He hit his notes with clarity and integrity. Price deployed a three-piece fiddle section to set a Western Swing motif, in fact they delivered “Crazy Arms” and “Heartaches By The Number” in the same dance hall tempo.
Dressed in blue jeans, a crisp white shirt and black blazer, Price offered the evening’s mission statement: “This is the music they’ve been trying to kill,” he told the crowd that included a six-month old with a red bananda (I’m not kidding). “And they’re not going to get it done.”
After Price’s performance, there was a 15 minute intermission to reset the stage for “Last of the Breed.” Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel opened up part two with their own set that consisted of “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”–with a shout out to Flagstaff—and “Miles of Miles of Texas.” But still no “Last of the Breed.”
Finally, Haggard strolled on stage like the eternal hipster saint. He hoisted his fiddle and took authentic delight in interacting with the twin fiddles, consisting of his own fiddle player and Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel. Haggard twirled his foot and shook his ass before slicing into Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and hitting the classic two-beat on “I Wonder If You Feel The Way I Do.” Haggard covered the latter track on the Wheel’s excellent 1993 tribute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Haggard followed with several of his greatest hits: “Silver Wings,” “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (big crowd pleaser with this crowd), and “I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am,” a ’45 that used to have regular rotation in my old loft jukebox. Dean Martin also covered “Pride.” When Haggard sings about things he learned in a hobo jungle, it is clear these guys are the last of a breed. Who sings about hobo jungles today?
I heard Brad Paisley’s “Celebrity” while trying to find a decent country radio station on the midnight drive down I-17 back to Scottsdale. As much as that pop song panders it fails to connect with any real country music fan.
Haggard covered “BIg River” with more intensity than usual (due to the fiddles) and offered some succulent electric guitar jazz runs on “Misery and Gin,” a song he doesn’t often perform. I should know. I’ve seen Haggard about 50 times. He is America’s voice.
When he got to “Muskogee” the event finally began to take shape.Â Price could be seen smiling in the wings as Willie and Merle traded verses on “Muskogee,” with Benson dropping in on the last verse. Willie and Merle reprised Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” from their 1983 duet album of the same name (and a song Merle and Dylan should have done on last year’s tour) and they dealt a convincing version of Willie’s “Reasons to Quit,” (“…reasons to quit below it always lower than the high..”) from “Pancho and Lefty.”.
Towards the end of his duet section with Merle, Willie invited singer-songwriter Freddy Powers on stage to cover Fats Waller’s “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Powers, who wrote the Haggard hits :”Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room Tonight,” and “A Bar in Bakersfield” and co-produced Nelson”s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” LP, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Powers sang in charging Western Swing tones despite keeping his trembling left hand in his coat pocket.
Nelson took more edgy Spanish-influenced guitar solos than I have seen in recent years. He seemed amped up to be reunited with his old running buddies. Nelson has been down this ‘country supergroup’ road before with the Highwaymen and now two of them are gone (Cash and Arizona’s own Waylon Jennings). Nelson will make these moments count.
After Powers cameo, Price returned to the stage and said, “Willie, here we go,,,,,”Â The trio then played songs from the “Last of the Breed” two-disc, 22-song CD that is out March 20 on Lost Highway. The three giants climbed new heights on Harlan Howard’s 1958 honky-tonker “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” wiith Haggard mimicking Bob Wills yelps and “I Love You So Much It Hurts” (both on the CD, produced by the empathetic Fred Foster). They followed the downbeat on the underchampioned Floyd Tillman material from the new record, most notably “I’ve Gotta Have My Baby Back.”
Willie brought back the Bob Wills number “Still Water Runs The Deepest” from the ’93 Asleep at the Wheel tribute album, whiile Merle chipped in with fluid vocals. Friday’s ringer that is not on the “Last of the Breed” record was Price and Nelson’s searing verison of Willie’s “Nightlife.” During Price’s vocals, Nelson played deep blues lines while Haggard messed around with the fiddle section.
Deep within his heart there lies a melody.
The Last of the Breed gave a no-nonsense performance on the CD’s leadoff track “My Life’s Been a Pleasure,” a chestnut written by Jesse Ashlock, who was a Wills vocalist-fiddle player. Willie and Merle first tackled the tune on “Pancho and Lefty,” but the Breed’s updated version is less maudlin. However, after “My Life’s Been a Pleasure,” Nelson sang “Crazy.”
Haggard picked up his white cowboy hat and walked off stage, exit right.Â He was never seen again at Tim’s Toyota Center.
Price remained but did not sing along on “Crazy” or “Always On My Mind.” He coughed a lot. With Nelson’s long time harmonica player Mickey Raphael on board, a Willie concert broke out. Nelson sang “On The Road Again,” and Price did add vocals to Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord” which appears on “Last of the Breed.” Benson took Haggard’s parts. The show ended with Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” just like any other Willie Nelson concert. The concert clocked in at two-and-a-half hours, including the short break after Price’s set.
The Last of the Breed wasn’t like the Who or the Rolling Stones where the stars conclude the evening by embracing arm around arm at the front of stage. Willie said so long and the entourage was off to the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas where they were scheduled to appear on Saturday.
So this is my longest blog ever.
I won’t even get into how I watched the Cubs blow a 5-0 lead to Sammy Sosa and the Texas Rangers a few hours before the concert. (But don’t forget this future Cub star: TYLER COLVIN, a smooth left handed swing like John Olerud but with more pop). As a liefelong Cubs fan, I’m used to all things last.
But tonight the “Last of the Breed” is first in my heart.