At exactly 8:15 the curtain rose at the Beacon Theater on Merle Haggard & the Strangers doing “Big City.” And for the next hour, Haggard led his excellent band through a set that not only touched on his hits and classic songs such as “White Line Fever” and “Silver Wings,” but also was a tour through several styles of American roots-based music, not only country, but blues, swing and dixieland, sometimes hitting all of the above on one song.
For close to 40 years Haggard has had the best road band in country music, and he still does, despite the fact that the only original members are drummer Biff Adams and steel player Norman Hamlet.
While the intensity of the late Roy Nichols is missed, the Strangers remain top-notch, and Haggard’s vocal skills have not diminished one bit.
Sometime after 9:30 the curtain rose on a hatless Bob Dylan and his new band tearing it up on “To Belone With You” with Don Herron leading the way on fiddle.
This was followed by “Hazel” with a great harp solo and then a killer version of “Cry Awhile” with brand new stops added on the time change.
A careful and gorgeous “Shelter From the Storm” followed with all members playing quietly letting the words be the focus.
This was followed by “Cold Irons Bound” with Denny Freeman adding a slide down on the bass notes of his guitar. Stu Kimball picked up an acoustic afterwards and began strumming in what once was referred to as a Dylan strum a few centuries ago. Herron came in on steel and the song turned into “Chimes of Freedom.” The tempo was perfect, and when Dylan confused a couple of lines on one of the later verses it didn’t matter. It was a truly moving performance.
Dylan put on his hat for one of the best versions of “Highway 61” I’ve seen in years came next with great work from all guitar players followed by “Love Sick.”
At first “Watching The River Flow” seemed like a letdown, but there were surprises in store, started by a wake up guitar solo by Kimball, how handed it over to Freeman, who handed it to Herron and then surprise of surprises, a piano solo by Dylan!
The curtain behind the players took on a starlit background for an ethereal “Not Dark Yet,” which pointed out one of the interesting things about this tour. On the last few tours it was almost as if Dylan didn’t want to touch his slow songs or let them be slow. This time he is treating them with the respect they deserve.
This led into a jumping Summer Days, with Herron playing a Driftin’ Cowboys lap steel and by the end the song was up there with the best of the Sexton/Campbell years.
The new “Tambourine Man” closed the show, with Herron playing heavenly pedal steel that reminded me of Buddy Emmons’ version of “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The arrangement of this song has grown since the tour began, and while I prefer the original, it’s a lot better seeing it than hearing it.
They returned for a terrific “Things Have Changed” with led into a great jam that went on and on with call and response between Dylan and Herron, followed by a not bad at all “Like A Rolling Stone.”
This was easily the best Dylan show I’ve seen in years.