Legend of Tonk
Country music star Dwight Yoakam struts his stuff at Gold Country Casino
I’ve got to admit I experienced a moment of doubt as I was driving toward Oroville’s Gold Country Casino to review the Dwight Yoakam concert last Friday. You see, I haven’t followed his career at all diligently; I’ve just always appreciated what I heard of his music at backyard barbecues and suchlike events. And the interviews of his I’ve read always revealed an articulate, honest and compassionately insightful intelligence behind the tight-jeaned, cowboy-hatted facade. I like the guy even though I don’t know him, to paraphrase a lyric from a song he sings.
Anyway, by the time we got there I was over my doubts and ready to get rocked by a man who has unobtrusively built a small legend within the country music field ever since he moved from Kentucky to Hollywood and started performing on stages with everyone from Los Lobos and the Violent Femmes to Buck Owens back in the early ‘80s. And the man does perform, believe me.
To set the preshow vibe Booker T. & the MGs’ classic “Green Onions” was cranked through the sound system loud enough to focus our attention while Yoakam’s band took the stage to huge applause.
When Dwight himself sauntered out in his signature droopy hat and skin-tight jeans and strummed himself into his latest single, “What Do You Do About Love,” the not-quite-capacity crowd went politely ballistic despite the fact that the guys in the sound booth were having a problem dialing in the acoustic levels clearly enough to separate the vocals from the overbearingly loud multiple guitars.
With the overdriven sound system obliterating many nuances of the fine musicianship of Yoakam’s band, it was easy to get distracted, or entranced, by Yoakam’s charismatic physical presence. Of the hundreds of musical artists I’ve seen perform, only David Byrne of Talking Heads comes to mind as a visually self-conscious equal of Yoakam’s. Dancing the splay-legged shimmy while strumming his guitar, with the curved brim of his hat hiding all but his cheekbones, jaw line and an occasional subtle smile, Yoakam presents the quintessential image of the ultracool “Honky-Tonk Man"—a song he performed late in his set to devastatingly positive effect.
Once the sound system was finally optimized, probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the show was a rendition of the old Queen song, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” a song Yoakam originally recorded for—God help us—a Gap commercial. The arrangement allowed plenty of room for every member of the band to stretch out and tear things up big time, and Yoakam gleefully led his band through a tour de force of pacing and dynamics, dropping things down to just the strum of his guitar before launching into yet another avalanche of guitar and pedal-steel jamming. It was great.
But for me, the real highlight of the show was a solo acoustic ballad that showcased Yoakam’s ornate, finger-picked guitar playing and heartfelt vocal mastery of what could be taken as a maudlin lyric recounting how “Mr. Johnson’s Love Lives On.” In Yoakam’s very capable hands the song eschews soggy sentimentality and achieves an epiphany of empathy with its subject matter. You can’t ask for more than that from a country song.
I’ve also got to admit I felt a little weird about the $75 ticket price, but the overwhelmingly positive response of the crowd and the still-scintillating memories of the performance help me realize that sometimes plunking down the big bucks really is worth it. Work has to be for something after all, and Dwight Yoakam has been working long and hard to achieve the privilege of revealing to us the joyfully rocking heart of country music.