Merle Haggard and the Strangers at the Pechanga ShowroomJeri and I first saw Merle Haggard in 1982 at the Chino Downs Ranch and again a few years later at the Universal Amphitheater. At the time Merle Haggard was already a certified star and a country music icon with few peers. This past Friday night at the Pechanga Resort and Casino, almost 28 years later, he was without peer. That he has aged and mellowed is undeniable but like a fine vintage wine “The Hag” has only improved with age. He wears the mantle of greatness well and has eased comfortably into a living legend in the music industry.
My daughter Meranda, knowing how we feel about Merle Haggard gave us two tickets to the concert for Christmas. We couldn’t wait. When Haggard came onto the stage the crowd showed it’s appreciation, standing and cheering as he walked from one side of the stage to the other, grinning and waving and showing his appreciation as well.
He spoke for a few minutes and then opened with “Working Man Blues”, my favorite Haggard song.. He sang the late Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and while Cash owns that song, Haggard did his old friend proud, singing and playing as only Merle Haggard can. He went through many of his past hits and the selections seemed to be spontaneous and a few came at the urging of the crowd, as was the case with “Swinging Doors” . The crowd stood and cheered when he sang “Fighting Side of Me”. If anything, Haggard plays with more passion than ever. Haggard was in an extremely good mood as he joked and chatted with the audience, much more so than I remember from his earlier concerts. He seemed to relish his age and his life experiences and it showed in his performance.
I’m not sure what the seating capacity is in the Pechanga Showroom but every seat seemed filled. The showroom was large enough to hold a good crowd but had an intimate feel to it. It was the perfect venue for Merle Haggard. Friday’s concert was one of those moments you never want to end.