Twenty-five years ago, a bill like this one would have been inconceivable. Merle Haggard, the one-time king of country, supported by an all-black gospel vocal group and a Dylan/Woody protege from Brooklyn — ha! But in 2002, legendary and American-rootsy is a wide spectrum, and these three acts are compatible in that all uphold venerable traditions — that, and most of their kudos come from somewhere besides the radio, which doesn’t play them very much if at all.
In the case of the headliner, country radio’s almost total blackout on the man that had more hits in the 1960s and early ’70s than anyone is amazing. But Haggard’s music is beloved by an amazing cross-section in age, from neo-rockabillies in their early 20s all the way to septuagenarians who were there back when “Swinging Doors” and “Mama Tried” were hits. Both of these were assayed, as well as “The Bottle Let Me Down, “Silver Wings” and “Okie From Muskogee,” which the 64-year-old Haggard admitted onstage “means nothing anymore.”
It did elicit a huge response, as did the phenomenal playing of Haggard’s band, the Strangers, especially Redd Volkaert’s blistering leads and Scott Joss’ fleet-fingered fiddling. Like good old boys, they veered into all kinds of barroom favorites, including “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” as well as Buck Owens and Lefty Frizzell standards.
Unlike other good old boys, however, Hag made more than one political jab at George W. Bush (“another Bush war going on, I guess”) while heaping mountains of praise on Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, of whom Haggard said, “Wasn’t life wonderful then, when we was making a living and only worrying about Monica and not Osama?” In the heartland, this might have drawn stone silence; at the El Rey, there was massive cheering.
As for Haggard’s openers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot earned his moniker with his long story songs and “spaced-out old man” monologues, perhaps in this case exacerbated by the fact that he’d driven 24 straight hours from west Texas to make the show. An encyclopedia of American folk, he played a brief run that included Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues,” Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” and Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Best of all were the Blind Boys of Alabama and their simple, driving gospel, highlighted by a hilarious opening rap that name-checked their two new benefactors, the Grammys and Amazon.com. Ah, the modern world collides with the old.