Well after one a.m. and a good way into the second of two sold-out shows Merle Haggard played Friday, May 10 at Tramp's, NYC, the Strangers struck up the chords to Lefty Frizzell's "That's the Way Love Goes." Merle put his hand up, said "Wait a minute" and asked if everyone was havin' a good time.

Pausing a moment for the predicatable whoops and hollers, he then launched into "Footlights": a song about throwing his guitar across the stage, trying to hide the mood he's really in, putting on "that old insto-matic grin," walking away without a curtain call.

For one of the few moments in either show, he shut the crowd up, save for the "Wooo, Merle!" ejaculations the slob in front of me seemed to have been programmed to spew every 15 seconds. What an odd moment. Is there a stranger choice of live material than "Footlights"? The idea of an artist stopping the momentum of a set and playing a song about hiding his mood and faking it -- and playing, as he was playing everything that night, with passion and enthusiasm -- was a little hard to take in.

Still, it makes sense, in a Merle sort of way. I mean "Footlights," a sort of artist's midlife manifesto, was written when Jimmy Carter was President, and here, nearly two decades later Merle's pushing sixty and still touring.

And tiring? A recent interview even finds him ready to make the compromises he's steadfastly refused to make over the course of his four-decades-long career. "For over 20 years, Haggard ruled country music despite his contrariness," writes Tim Stegall in the Austin Chronicle. "Now he wonders if that same contrariness is costing him. 'I've been one that didn't really play the game,' reflects Haggard, before adding wearily, 'I'll play the game, now. I'll do everything I'm supposed to do, and see if that's what it is.'"

Friday even found the notoriously taciturn Hag trying to make small talk -- cracking jokes about his prison record, about the long bus ride to San Quentin metamorphosing into the grueling tour schedule he's been on since then. This he pulled off with about as much conviction as Bob Dole spieling out one-liners.

Kind of sad, really.

But is he really playing the game? Yeah, he cracked jokes, but you could still find examples of his continuing to kick against the pricks, to get Biblical for a second. Playing "Footlights," forgetting -- or, more likely pretending to forget -- the lyrics to "Okie" both times he performed it. OK, you idiots, you want that song here it is -- better yet, you sing it. Anyway, people are coming around to what Don Was told David Gates in a terrific Newsweek piece in the April 15 issue: "He'll tell you he's a country singer .... But to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion. And I don't know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit."

OK, the show. The first set featured the songs you'd expect -- the "Working Man Blues" kickoff, "Big City," "Silver Wings," "Mama Tried," "Okie" as a show-closer, the Bob Wills material, in this case "Milk Cow Blues" (or was it "Brain Cloudy Blues" -- or both? My brain was a little cloudy at the time. Help). He might have been a bit lackadasical in promoting his strong new Curb album 1996, from which he sang only "Truck Driver's Blues" and "Kids Get Lonesome Too" both sets. There was, in fact, more shilling going on for a 2-CD Sun Records repackaging of his greatest hits. I for one could have seen him push a few more of his new tunes, or even that stunning cover of Iris Dement's "No Time To Cry."

That aside, overall Merle was in fine voice, especially in his lower range, which is where he kept things for the most part. He's a stunning live performer. Let alone his absurdly great catalog of songs, is there anyone out there who can match Merle Haggard for being able to sing, play guitar and lead a band? And what a band: Norman Hamlet on pedal steel, Joe Manuel on guitar, Biff Adam ("the most dynamic drummer in show biz"), Joe Manuel on guitar, Jimmy Denkins and Abe Manuel on fiddle, Don Markham on horns, Bonnie Owens singing backup (and opening the set with some accomplished yodeling on "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"). [Someone help: I didn't catch the bass player's name.]

There were some pleasant surprises -- surprises to me, anyway, as this was the first time I had seen Merle live -- "Kern River," "That's the Way Love Goes" and "They're Tearing the Labor Camps Down" among them. For me, the highlight of the first set had to be "Valentine." In fact I found the highlights generally came on the songs that couldn't really be sung along to. "Valentine" hushed the way-too-boisterous crowd, and leads me to ask an open question to Merle fans out there: is it always this way? Is there always a conspicuously loud minority of drunken assholes who think going to see Merle gives them license to act like what they think is a lowest-common-denominator redneck drunk? To shout out "Woo, Merle" in the middle of "Kern River" say, or to clap stupidly in four-four time to "I Take A Lot of Pride in What I Am"?

I mean, what's up with that?

And it wasn't just me. Before the second set there was an announcement over the PA reminding folks that they were not at a rock concert, that all were welcome to whoop and holler in the right places, but in general to keep their mouths shut -- "else they might miss the fuckin great lyrics." Not really effective, I must say.

It must have been after one a.m. when Merle came out for the second set, kicking into "I Take a Lot of Pride" (at which point I pointlessly asked the 300-pound gorilla in front of me to stop clapping along -- it's a ballad, fer chrissakes. In response, he and his friends started pounding their paws even louder and even more out of time.) Don't let it get to you, I kept saying to myself, don't let it bug you that you can only hear the people around you singing "Big City," and not Merle.

Still, it's a rule of live music in New York -- if a show's worth seeing, it's worth putting up with a lot of shit and horrible conditions. There was no mosh pit at Merle, but it was a struggle if you wanted to stand close to the stage just the same. And this was one show well worth seeing.


The Big Casino