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Honky-tonk man

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Dwight Yoakam has made a career of pissing people off, from his overt dissing of the Nashville establishment to his often brittle and unsympathetic interviews. Last Friday at the Aragon he tried it with his own fans, but they couldn't stay mad at him long. The crowd was largely country, but there were also signs of Yoakam's wider appeal. The guys in Stetsons and women in fringed jackets brushed elbows with punkish hipsters in vintage-wear. There were even a few little kids. Yoakam kept them all waiting for more than an hour after opening acts Kelly Willis and Jimmie Dale Gilmore finished their sets. The crowd drank and smoked and waited. The smell of leather mixed with beer, and from the balcony you could see a haze of cigarette smoke drifting across the wide expanse of the main floor up into the Aragon's blinking-star ceiling. Eventually spontaneous applause and chants rippling through the crowd gave way to boos, and Yoakam's band took some abuse when they finally assembled onstage.

But all anger evaporated when the man himself emerged and without apology or explanation kicked off a blistering two-hour set. By the time he tore into the goosed-up "Guitars, Cadillacs," the crowd was roaring. They came to see a star, and they got what they paid for.

His lean frame fitted into beige chaps, jeans jacket, and cowboy hat, Yoakam boosted honky-tonk's raw swagger to its zenith. His moves were culled from the past, a rich concoction of ass-wags, thigh-flaps, abbreviated duck walks, and boot-heel spins. He wore his acoustic guitar chest-high and aimed it like a rifle. A lesser artist would have looked stupid. But Yoakam knows where he comes from, and where he's going.

Where he comes from, musically speaking, is the honky-tonk. Yoakam's influences--Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard--are deeply apparent in his music. But Yoakam is a modern guy, informed by the rock and roll of his own time. And like his heroes, he doesn't treat country music like a delicate artifact. His recorded covers of Frizzell's "Always Late With Your Kisses," Johnny Horton's "Honky-Tonk Man," and Buck Owens's "Streets of Bakersfield" don't genuflect. Yoakam recognized and thrust into the 80s the latent rock in these tunes without losing their country hip.

He applies the same aesthetic to his original material. As a songwriter Yoakam stays true to his honky-tonk roots and cuts to the bone of contemporary life. Over a series of well-crafted albums, he has written about the misunderstandings that banish people to both rural and urban isolation ("South of Cincinnati," "Throughout All Time"), heartbroken ghosts doomed to wander for eternity ("Johnson's Love"), and the murderous possibilities within a jealous heart ("Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room").

On his latest release, This Time, Yoakam maintains his writer's edge, and his nasally, slightly strangled vocals take on a huskier, burnished quality. His best tunes deal with matters of the heart, and through Yoakam's lens the view is seldom pretty. An empty house becomes a shrine to domestic failure in "Home for Sale"; heartache is hell on the devastating "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere"; in the country weeper "Two Doors Down," Yoakam unflinchingly fills a familiar role--a man alone on a bar stool: "There's a bottle / Where I take out my shame / And hold it up / For the whole world to view."

Yoakam owes a lot to his longtime producer and guitarist Pete Anderson, and the depth of the musical partnership they forged at the beginning of Yoakam's career was apparent on Friday night. They frequently stood together, bound onstage by the songs they'd carved so expertly in the studio. Yoakam was the front man, while Anderson shook the crowd as the hard-rocking guitar slinger (though the producer in him erupted at several points as he instructed the crowd when to clap and when to cut it).

Lots of modern bands have thrown out rock and roll chord structure like a carcass, but at the Aragon Anderson proved there's plenty of meat left on those bones. His guitar playing can't be overestimated. He's an intelligent, gutsy, and emotional stylist, a master of slow, sustained notes, lean, biting blues lines, and manhandled bass riffs. His showmanship is on a par with Yoakam's. On songs like "Little Sister," "Wild Ride," and "Fast as You," he planted himself on the edge of the stage and with a poker face and a Fender ignited the hall.

It's a testament to Yoakam's vocal authority and the skill of his band that they cut through the Aragon's mushed acoustics. Anderson's guitar was the leading edge of a tight, perfectly rehearsed unit, a couple of members doubling on accordion and mandolin to augment the basic mix of drums, bass, keyboards, and fiddle.

Yoakam needs a tough band to match his enormous stage presence. He turned the epic insouciance of "Honky-Tonk Man" into his personal theme. Alone on acoustic guitar, he slyly plucked out the intro, then refashioned several verses with a picking style reminiscent of Johnny Cash's old sideman Luther Perkins. When the band finally exploded into the rocking version, men and women alike shouted out the immortal cad's refrain: "And when my money's all gone / I'm on the telephone / Singing hey, hey mama / Can your daddy come home."

The weight of time, a theme that crops up frequently in Yoakam's work, literally hung over the night. The Roman-numeral clock that adorns the cover of This Time loomed large on the wall behind the band, and liner art from the album was projected onto long screens that hung staggered above the stage: a Daliesque clock dripping off a woman's back, a cowboy-booted foot stepping down next to a pocket watch. It was a nod to the forces that have shaped Yoakam's music, past and present.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin-Photo Reserve.

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