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Merle Haggard and Kelly Willis

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HAGGARD NOT WORN: Old country crooner can still stir a crowd.
  • HAGGARD NOT WORN: Old country crooner can still stir a crowd.

“I have a confession to make — we’ve had a little too much to drink. We did some celebrating before the show.” With that admission out of the way, Merle Haggard led a rowdy Robinson crowd in singing happy birthday to his drummer, Biff Adam, and set the tone for a festive atmosphere for the remainder of the night.

I was skeptical about seeing the country legend in a theater (the last time I saw him play I stood beside a mechanical bull in a honky tonk), but Robinson proved to be a perfect venue, even giving the show a kind of Louisiana Hayride-like vibe. It also allowed for a relatively quiet music mix, making Haggard’s voice the focal point of the sound. And at age 70, Merle Haggard’s voice has never been better — equal parts sensitive (“That’s the Way Love Goes”) and rowdy (“Stay Here and Drink”).

The show featured Haggard’s longtime band, the Strangers, who play vintage Bakersfield country music like Nashville never existed. In addition to Haggard hits like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Okie from Muskogee,” the set included nods to Willie, Waylon, George Jones, and Johnny Cash and digs at the president that would have been unimaginable three years ago (just ask the Dixie Chicks).

Opener Kelly Willis was laid back and charming. She has a knack for re-interpreting jewels from the rock pantheon as rootsy Texas songs. Name another singer who so effortlessly makes songs from writers like Jules Shear, Paul Westerberg, Marshall Crenshaw and Iggy Pop feel like authentic, if left of center, country classics. She leaned heavily on 1999’s excellent “What I Deserve,” but also featured songs from her latest record, “Translated from Love.”

The crowd, who insisted on calling the Hogs between sets (someone explain this stubborn habit to me, please), was adoring and rowdy. Very rowdy, in fact — dancing in the aisles, climbing into the orchestra pit and turning the often stuffy theater into a party. Referring to the ban on drinks in the auditorium, Haggard said at one point, “We’re at a distinct disadvantage playing for a bunch of straight white folks!” Given the response he received, he must have been joking.

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