UCLA Live’s “Roots” series certainly lived up to its name Wednesday night, as two American originals — Merle Haggard and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott — made their Royce Hall debut. Haggard commented that the elegant venue was a far cry from the “beer halls” he and his long-time backing band, the Strangers, are used to playing; booking the country legend, one of the architects of the Bakersfield Sound, reflects a new respect for Haggard. He reached a new aud when he opened for Bob Dylan last year, and after letting his catalog languish for decades, Capitol Records is finally re-issuing his classic ’60s albums in pristine sounding, nicely packaged two-fers.
But Haggard brings a little bit of the honky-tonk with him wherever he goes. Bookended by two versions of “Okie From Muskogee” — an instrumental version that serves as his walk-on theme and a winking rendition that acknowledged and defrayed the song’s divisive history (his biggest crossover hit, he ascribes its success to “the ’60s, when people were stupid as rocks”).
Looking craggy but hale, with a voice that has held up remarkably well, Haggard appears to be a man completely at home in his own skin. He has remained remarkably consistent in his method: At Royce, he played songs such as “Big City” and “Mama Tried” with their economic and evocative lyrics, easy-flowing melodies and two-step rhythms built for dancing. Haggard shapes the tunes by calling for various solos and keeps the band on their toes by occasionally cutting the songs short before their final chorus. Haggard even shows off his chops on the fiddle for the Western swing romp “I Had a Little Girl.”
And songs like “Are the Good Times Really Gone for Good” sound even more convincing with age. They are songs as timeless as the hoary jokes he tells — no matter how many times he tells the aud that he’d “like to introduce the Strangers,” only to have the band turn and shake hands it still works, and works wonderfully.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott preceded Haggard and his 40-minute set was an unalloyed joy. With his vast knowledge of American song, he’s something of a human iPod; his new Anti- album “I Stand Alone” is made up of songs he knew but never played for his daughter.
But until Steve Jobs and company can invent a player that can tell stories like Elliott, the machine will be second best. Elliott spends around half his stage time talking, but his stories are the stuff of a vanished America: $12 Model-A Fords, of songs learned from cave-dwelling banjo players, cowboys living in Belgium, from pilots while stowing away on a cruise ship, Hoagy Carmichael, or traveling cross-country with Woody Guthrie.