It’s likely everybody in the packed house at the Birchmere for Monday's Merle Haggard expected to be in the presence of greatness. Haggard met those expectations.
Haggard's not always in a fine mood or voice these days, but on this night he was both. Backed by a quorum of his longtime supporting cast, the Strangers, and even picking out a few solos on his Telecaster, he enjoyed playing the gracious host. He deviated from the planned setlist to honor a shouted request for "Mama Tried," a song whose twang and jangle epitomized the Bakersfield Sound that he and Buck Owens made famous in the mid-1960s.
He reminded fans how great a tear-in-your-beer tune can be with two of the best ever recorded — "Swingin' Door" and "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." And for an old coot, he was playful. He stopped "Okie from Muskogee" to rib the crowd for not giving enough response to his period-piece lines casting aspersions on college kids' use of marijuana and LSD. He got romantic and gave a primer on pure country balladeering with "If We Make It Through December" and "That's the Way Love Goes." He did "Thirty Again, " a wistful tune he recorded two decades ago, and confessed he'd still love another shot at being young. His vocal phrasing, and his aura, have only grown stronger with age.
And for all the positive vibes, Haggard, at 74, left no doubt that the mad-at-the-world attitude he took out of his Dust Bowl upbringing remains. He reprised "They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down," a deep cut from 1972 with its sympathetic nod to "The man with the big family who can't afford the ole high standard of livin'." He made several snide references to the debt ceiling debaters found "across the river." And he walked off the stage after dedicating "Fightin' Side of Me" to "all the armed forces who aren't gonna get paid." The tune found him still raging against "some squirrely guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin.'" After hearing Haggard sing it, even Gandhi might want to punch that dude.