“I want to dedicate this to a son of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam told the sold-out crowd at this year’s concluding Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival concert Sunday night. “I don’t mean Buck,” Yoakam explained, referring to iconic Telecaster player Buck Owens, who transformed the sound of country music in the early 60s. “He’s great, but Merle was such a mentor to me.” And then led his high-voltage, expert hard honkytonk band through a brief, poignant set of Merle Haggard tunes. There was an aptly airy, wistful version of Silver Wings, a bouncy take of Mama Tried…and a singalong on Okie From Muskogee, the widely misunderstood early outlaw-country anthem where everybody in the crowd knew the words. If you grew up a fan of country music, obviously you know them by heart. But you might not expect several thousand New Yorkers (and a smattering of tourists) to know them as well. And they did. Folks, this is what New York is listening to in 2016. Festival producer Jill Sternheimer and her crew were definitely not asleep at the wheel this year.
In a marathon, nonstop, tirelessly workmanlike two hours onstage, Yoakam crooned as strongly as he did back in 1985, when, as he related, he opened for the Blasters at the old Ritz (now Webster Hall). He thanked anybody “still ambulatory” from that era who might have come out for this show – and a handful of folks apparently did. He kicked things off with Guitars Cadillacs, from his first album from a year after that, when he was one of the great new hopes in purist country music, along with Steve Earle, Ricky Skaggs and Rodney Crowell. But Yoakam rocked harder than any of those guys, at least at the time, as he did here. Alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, Yoakam showed off some snazzy flatpicking chops, no surprise since his forthcoming album takes a turn into bluegrass (he’s another guy who has his finger on what kids these days are listening to).
Behind him, drummer Mitch Marine and bassist Jonathan Clark put down a swinging backbeat, a platform for lead guitarist Eugene Edwards’ sizzling, resonant Telecaster and hollowbody Gretsch work. Behind them, multi-instrumentalist Brian Whelan dazzled the crowd with his dexterity on – are you ready – guitar, pedal steel, piano, organ, percussion and fiddle. When Yoakam mentioned the word “Grammy,” there was a predictable dip toward generic New Nashville, and the material from his latest album didn’t hold up alongside his earlier stuff. Putting everything in context, he and the band covered the early psychedelic Beatles as expertly as fat Elvis. It was like being at a Oklahoma county fair, but better.
Minneapolis five-piece opener the Cactus Blossoms stole the show with a brooding, often mesmerizing set of originals and a couple of covers, one a low-key reworking of an early Kinks hit and another that sounded like the Black Angels, whose moody resonance blended in well with the rest of the material. Frontman Jack Torrey and his rhythm guitarist brother Page Burkum joined voices with similarly bittersweet high-lonesome sensibility that vividly evoked the Everly Brothers. Torrey (who adopted a stagename several years ago) also turned out to be an excellent guitarist, channeling Tal Farlow and an army of mid-50s pickers with his judicious, morosely twangy riffs and fills, bolstered by a Les Paul player whose similarly tasteful, spare lines lingered over the slow, echoey rimshot beat of drummer Chris Hepola in tandem with bassist Andy Carroll.
Their best song of the night was Powder Blue, a slowly swaying Nashville gothic number that used the opening notes of the Twin Peaks theme as a springboard. “We have some sad songs for you,” Torrey had cautioned the crowd as the group took the stage, and he meant it. Although there were a couple of jaunty Tex-Mex flavored numbers in the set, most of the material was slow to midtempo: as he explained, even the set’s lone lovestruck ballad had a similarly terror-stricken undercurrent, its protagonist dreading the moment his girl might leave him just as the others did. On one hand, what this band does is retro to the core, which might have something to do with their popularity. On the other, it’s cutting edge. It looks like we’ve come full circle, back to Nashville and Bakersfield, 1963. Which isn’t such a bad thing.