Last of the Breed 2007
Last of the Breed Tour
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Asleep at the Wheel
The Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan
March 23, 2007
The Fox Theatre is an over-the-top art deco theatre on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. The theatre has lots of marble and gold with numerous grand staircases, nooks and passageways. The seats are all velvet and seating is assigned. The many ushers all wear tuxedos. This is a high-class venue for music.
Inside the main room, the band equipment was huddled in the middle of a huge stage with a plain black backdrop with the drummer on a riser surrounded by Fender amplifiers. The floor was covered with monitor speakers so that anyone singing at any of the many microphone stands would be able to hear. One cool touch was a cute cymbal the shape of the state of Texas on the drum kit.
I was shocked to see people in suits with ties setting up equipment. Were these the roadies? Was this the band? The crowd was what you might expect at a Willie Nelson concert, lots of boots, jeans and cowboy hats, but also dresses and bill caps. Country folk. What I didn’t expect at an indoor concert was the beer. They were selling what must have been 32 ounce plastic cups of beer and most of the crowd seemed to be each carrying two cups as they tried to find their seats. We were unfortunately the first in our row to arrive, so that every time someone else got there, we had to get up to let them get past. This was a taste of what was to come.
When it was time to begin, one of the fellows in a suit who was arranging microphones went to center stage and announced that Ray Price was coming on the stage, which he did. The crowd clapped, but lots of people were not in their seats yet, so the concert did not start with a bang. The “roadies” in suits were apparently Ray’s band. Ray himself is rather low key, but the sound system was even more low key. We could barely hear the instruments above the conversations in the room. Luckily, lots of people were singing along with the great old country songs, so it was easy to follow the tunes. It was annoying that so many people were wandering up and down the aisles and getting up and down to get more beer, but I figured that since Ray was the “warm up” band that things would settle down once the headliners took the stage. As near as I could tell, Ray was great. His voice is certainly not what it used to be, but he knows how to sing a great song, and he has plenty. He did mention that he was originally asked to go to Nashville by Hank Williams himself and roomed with him for over a year, which he followed with a Hank Williams number. One very annoying aspect of the performance was the fact that after every song, the house lights were put on. The house lights being three rectangular blocks of flood lights (maybe 10' x 30' each) above the band angled so as to shine right in our eyes. This made no sense to me and ruined my “night vision” for seeing what was happening on the stage. Very strange.
During the break a more eclectic bunch of people moved things around on the stage. A couple of radio personalities wandered onto the stage and started to talk to the audience, but no one seemed to know what they were doing up there and the crowd pretty much ignored them. As near as I could tell, they were pointing out some people in the front row that they had chosen out from somewhere in the balcony to sit down front. They seemed pretty happy about it, but no one else seemed to care. Or maybe we were just too far from the front of the stage and couldn’t hear what they were saying very well. Anyway, they did introduce Asleep at the Wheel, playing Route 66.
I liked Asleep at the Wheel a lot. They have that great blend of western swing and jazz sensibilities with a heaping helping of instrumental talent. After just a couple of songs, out wandered Merle Haggard himself. The crowd was very pleased and clapped loudly. Now I expected that the crowd would settle down and watch the show. Unfortunately, all of the beer the crowd had been drinking was beginning to take effect. Each song was greeted with whoops of joy and jumping out of their seats. Then of course, in the middle of songs, everyone in the row has to get up so that they can get out to get more beer. And of course, whenever a song ended, up came the house lights right into my eyes. Merle Haggard is one of the premier songwriters in country music, but the sound system was still on low power, so without the singing along by the crowd, I wouldn’t hardly know what song they were playing. Merle played some fiddle and then switched to a Fender Telecaster guitar. Merle did several of his own tunes and did a fine job of handling the guitar work, with the Asleep at the Wheel crew taking solos as well.
One great moment was during Merle’s gripping rendition of “Okie from Muskogee”. During the lyric, “We don’t wear our hair all long and shaggy,” out walks Willie Nelson, who helps him finish out the song. The crowd went wild.
From that point on, Willie and Merle share the stage and trade off songs and lyrics in songs. They were even joined onstage by Ray Price for a few numbers. Willie played some new numbers that he wrote including “Superman.” Too bad I couldn’t make out the lyrics over the casual conversations in the crowd. His guitar work was wonderful. Most of the crowd was on their third or fourth beer by now, so when Willie broke into “Whiskey River” they all jumped to their feet and sang along.
After the last song, Willie and the others never got a chance to leave the stage. Everyone was on their feet and clapping. So, they finished up with a blues number and despite the standing and clapping after that number, they waved goodbye and wandered off the stage. The crowd didn’t seem to mind so much and everyone quickly headed for the exits.
So ended my first country and western concert. The first thing they should do is fire all the guys running their sound system. They are not getting their money’s worth, no matter what they are paying them. Here we have some of the finest songwriters in country music, maybe in all music, and you can’t hear what they are saying, let alone singing. With the modern sound systems available, this is criminal.
I’ve been to a lot of indoor and outdoor rock concerts over the years, and I would have to say that the closest to this experience I have had would be a Who concert. Who fans are the most obnoxious, loud and annoying people you ever want to be stuck in a room with. Even the fans at an Iggy Pop concert have more of a sense of civilized behavior than I saw among the Willie Nelson crowd. This is not necessarily all a bad thing. The experience was like seeing Willie in a real down-home honky tonk in Texas, something like the bar scene in the Blues Brothers movie where the Blues Brothers substitute for the Good Ole Boys. All that was missing was the chicken wire. Unfortunately, that is not my culture. I don’t go to bars and drink beer until I start shouting. In general, I don’t think I would normally want to go to bars where that is a common thing. So, my infatuation with the songwriting abilities of Willie and Merle will have to be satiated by their recordings and television appearances. I am honored to be able to see these legends perform in person. However, I don’t think I will need another honky tonk experience.