Saturday, March 24, 2007

Last of the Breed

I was going to write about how Madame Cura and I spent last Thursday evening, but I'm glad I didn't, because Ben Ratliff gets it right.

Song after song, with endless differences in the shadings and rhythms of his vocal phrasing, and with modest, clear-minded guitar solos, Mr. Haggard made copyright a dead issue. He used his restlessness to melt down his hits, to undo them and turn them back into process and possibility. He worked within the changing spaces of a flexible band; he sang the first verse of “Sing Me Back Home” by himself. He smuggled the line “Honey, don’t worry about what George Bush does” into the lyrics of “That’s the Way Love Goes”; he ordered solos in “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”; he engaged Mickey Raphael, the harmonica player from Mr. Nelson’s band, who played short solos and obbligatos as if he were another guitarist.

Mr. Nelson arrived, smiley but wearing a similar inscrutability, and together the two continued the weird work that Mr. Haggard had begun.

“Pancho and Lefty” was served in a businesslike way. But then came “Ramblin’ Fever,” with a slashing solo from Mr. Nelson’s heavily distressed guitar, and the demonstration of both singers’ lethal, discussion-ending baritone voices. Cleaning off the table before dessert, Freddie Powers, an excellent soft-tenor Texas singer who has worked with both Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard, sang “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”

Mr. Price reappeared for a few songs from the record, including two from the great ark of Wills (“Roly Poly” and “Please Don’t Leave Me Any More Darlin’ ”) and a rising-to-the-occasion version of “Night Life,” in which he and the band slowly surged to a thundering final chorus. This was a more orderly part of the show: elegant, old school, moving.

Ray Price, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson -- in Radio City Music Hall of all places -- it doesn't get much better than that.

But maybe the best part was early in the show, when Ray Price led off the night with his band. At the end of the first song the house lights went up and Ray, who looked fragile and elegant, gazed out upon the worshipful audience standing amidst the gold plush kitch and grandeur of Radio City and said, "I think I've been in the wilderness too long."

One thing that I hadn't realized is just how good a guitar player Willie Nelson is. His solos were intense things, made all the more impressive because he mentioned a hiatus he had to take because of carpal tunnel.


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