Almost 35 years after the release of his “major label debut album,” “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.,” they now refer to him by just his first name. As if he were Cher.
Dwight Yoakam was roots music before there was roots music, and has continued to be creatively out of the zeitgeist ever since. He and his quartet of supporting musicians have, since the departure of former guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, become a touring institution.
Which makes problems for Dwight. His fans love him, love his live shows and have distinct expectations of what he will do at them. He is known for long shows played virtually without pauses, for dance band music that brings the drums into play even in the arrangement of ballads, and for the use of just the five musicians playing a variety of sometimes unconventional instruments.
We didn’t hear the bongos at Wichita’s great old Cotillion Ballroom Sunday night. But the band managed to introduce accordion, mandolin, fiddle, pedal steel, electric piano and organ, and dozens of different sounding guitars into their two-hour set.
It was an unfailingly good-sounding show except for one thing. The Cotillion, which the SRO crowd found to be in stunningly good condition after all these years of roller derby and Tech 9ne shows, failed to give distinctive voice to bass sounds, so that any lilt to the rhythms was deadened.
Oh, and even some greybeards take phone videos during concerts. Otherwise the show was very successful. It began with 50 minutes of young Tyler Booth’s country band. They were energetic, prepared and diligent, and Booth proved to be a talented and likable vocalist. But there was nothing new in the set.
Now if Yoakam had done much new during his time on stage, he might have disappointed his fans. So how did he keep the show new while giving the people what they wanted?
Well, he played both sides of his new single, songs inspired by California’s ’70s young country movement that included bands like Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Decent stuff.
He played songs from his heroes in California’s 60s traditional country movement — the Bakersfield thing. He and the band did Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” as well as “Okie From Muskogee.”
As he has for the last few years, he interrupted his own hit “Turn It Up, Turn Me On, Turn Me Loose” at the point where the lyric goes “Dancing to an old Buck Owens song” to do “Buckaroo,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Act Naturally.”
And while Yoakam doesn’t usually go in for rearrangements of his own material, he played new settings of two fabulous covers. Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” sounded great in Yoakam’s three-quarter tempo. And the band’s “Ring of Fire,” a song Yoakam has covered before, got new energy from the importation of the lead guitar line from T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get it On).”
Otherwise the material was mostly from Yoakam’s first four albums. We didn’t hear much “21st Century” stuff — no “Late Great Golden State,” no “Blame the Vain,” no “Intentional Heartache.” Nor did we get “Long White Cadillac” or “Two Doors Down.”
Still, we were having fun. An hour and a half into the show, Dwight told us the band was finally warmed up. Then, hat low, he led them into “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” and the rousing “Fast as You.” The band got off stage and stayed off for a bit, apparently calling ahead to the airport to say they would be a little late for their flight.
Then, with Dwight sewn back into his jeans, they came out for an encore that they surrounded with brief quotes from Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” Yoakam played the song at a Webb tribute in Carnegie Hall, New York City, a couple of years ago.
But what’s two years in a career spanning decades? Especially for someone who still seems to be having fun playing for his nation of fans.
In Yoakam’s show, it all feels fresh and genuine.