Merle Haggard played a little trick on his audience last Sunday night at Robinson Auditorium. After introducing a song he claimed to have written only the day before, he jumped into “Love's Always Pretty When It's New” — a swing tune he's been playing on the road since at least last year.
The joke — which only the most obsessive Haggard fan could have understood without a little research — was a fitting one. “This is all smoke and mirrors,” Haggard cryptically quipped at another point of the show. Indeed it was. The concert on Sunday was a shadow of a live performance. “Canned” is how a fellow concertgoer accurately put it. At only an hour long, and filled with performances containing only a modicum of feeling, the show left me with the sense that that I'd just watched a greatest hits album.
Perhaps it's not surprising that Haggard is resting on his laurels these days. He has plenty of them — including “Mama Tried,” “Silver Wings,” and “Swinging Doors,” all of which he played in workmanlike fashion on Sunday. Such decades-old hits took up the majority of the concert, though Haggard did play some material a bit removed from the beaten path. Noteworthy in this regard was his take on “I Had a Little Mule,” a Bob Wills song on which Haggard switched his acoustic guitar for a fiddle.
Haggard, whose voice is still strong, was pretty good on that fiddle. He was pretty good on the acoustic guitar, too, at least when he actually played it, as he did on “Mama's Prayer.” But these signs of life only accentuated the mediocrity of the rest of the show. Chalk part of it up to the Strangers, his 10-man band. Besides the pedal steel player, who did the heavy lifting, they looked more like cheerleaders than musicians. Robinson should also share some of the blame. Though the hall is beautiful and the sound excellent, the distance it imposes between audience and performer can make for bloodless chemistry.
Whether the crowd felt the same dissatisfaction is an open question. There was plenty of hollering for specific songs, which Haggard acknowledged only by saying he couldn't hear a damn word of it. It seemed that he had things pretty much mapped out, from “I'm a Lonesome Fugitive,” the opener, to the obligatory closer, “Okie from Muskogee.”
In introduction to the latter song, Haggard commented, “If you don't like this one, put it in your pipe and smoke it.” The remark drew some laughs — the song's narrator doesn't care for marijuana, after all — but it might also have been a subtle screw-you to the crowd. A customer paying full price for this show — three figures for some seats — would not be faulted if he felt a bit duped. As Haggard left the stage, a good portion of the crowd left with him, certain that they would not get an encore. Sure enough, the house lights came on two minutes later. Perhaps the audience would have had a better time that night if they'd followed the advice of another of Haggard's hits: “I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink.”