By this point in his 15-year career, a Dwight Yoakam show is as codified and entrenched as Noh theater. His costume — tight jeans, Western jacket, Stetson pulled low over his eyes — and his stage moves — butt wiggles and leg shimmys — have hardly changed since he started playing San Fernando Valley clubs such as the Palomino in the mid-1980s. And the audience knows exactly when to scream and when to moan and can sing the lyrics back with perfect timing, knowing when to pause and echoing the breaks in Yoakam’s honey-and-bourbon voice. So it’s a bit of a surprise to see him perform his show on a stage festooned with banners proclaiming “Tomorrows Sound Today.”
It’s ironic, of course, and the lava lamps and oversized metallic orbs surrounding the band drive the point home for those who missed the joke. But country music has never done well with irony — Garth Brooks’ ill-fated Chris Gaines persona was done in by his poker-faced vacuity — and it’s hard to imagine two musicians more steeped in tradition than Yoakam or Joe Ely, who opened the show.
For Yoakam, the slogan (which is also the title of his upcoming Reprise album) harkens back to the 1960s, and the four songs drawn from the new album (including “Sad Side of Town,” written with his longtime hero Buck Owens) continue his recent melding of Bakersfield country with British psychedelia and mid-’60s pop.
He’s the kind of guy for whom the British Invasion’s finest moment was the Beatles cover of Owens’ “Act Naturally.” Yoakam’s songs spread their net wide, and the set alternated yearning ballads such as “Thousand Miles From Nowhere” and “Home For Sale” with the Stonesy stomp of “Fast As You,” and dropping in covers that ranged from Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man” and a mini Elvis set of “Suspicious Minds” and “Mystery Train.”
Yoakam’s band navigates the music’s sharp curves with aplomb. Producer Pete Anderson’s mercurial guitar continues to impress, finding the junction between Don Rich’s whiny Statocaster sound and flashy runs that echo Jeff Beck and other British guitar heroes.
Joe Ely’s music — captured most recently by Rounder Records on “Live at Antone’s — is as eclectic and original as Yoakam’s, although he lacks the headliner’s sex appeal and flash. Mixing rockabilly, country folk and Mexican conjunto, Ely creates a distinctively American sound.
The songs, both Ely originals and by Robert Earl Keene, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Willie Nelson, have a metaphorical and musical substance and beauty that’s rare in any era.