For his sustained excellence as a songwriter and as a bandleader, there is no other musician touring now like Dwight Yoakam. He has released two records in the last three years that sound as innovative and distinct from contemporary country music as his debut did from Nashville’s mainstream in 1986. Playing in Ventura on Friday night, he delivered a selection of his own classics alongside cuts from 2012’s Three Pears and this year’s Second Hand Heart. In the process, the Kentucky native reaffirmed his status as a living legend in this last show of his 2015 tour.
Blazing through the uptempo opener “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” Yoakam’s band found the right tempo for every number Friday night, mesmerizing the audience in the gorgeous Majestic Theater in Ventura with its command and swagger. Through cuts spanning his career, including “Please, Please Baby,” “The Streets of Bakersfield,” the timeless ballad “I Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” and “Guitars, Cadillacs,” the Honkytonk Man’s voice worked the territory where Elvis-meets-Buck-meets-bluegrass, and found its place once more in the audience’s heart, a heart that Dwight clearly owns.
Of course, one of the most fascinating things about watching a living legend is observing his influence on and cultivation of the talents around him. Accompanied as he was the last time in Ventura by the twang-king Eugene Edwards on guitar and by secret weapon Mitch Marine on drums, Dwight’s latest supporting cast wields its trademark musicianship effortlessly and to stunning effect. The bass player this time around, Brett Simons, sings pretty harmonies and plays solid bass. And the absence of Brian Whelan on keys, accordion, and pedal steel was not only addressed brilliantly by multi-instrumentalist Elliot James, but it meant that Dwight’s former sideman could appear fronting his own band on Friday night as the opening act.
Since departing the Dwight train, Brian Whelan has written some stunning new tunes to be released in March of 2016 as the follow up to his powerful debut LP Decider. Playing to warm Yoakam’s crowd, Whelan lit some fires of his own, utilizing lessons from his former boss mixed with those from a stint playing behind Chuck Berry, layered under a vocal style that recalls at times a young Roy Orbison, in the context of songs seemingly imagined by an iPhone-era Buddy Holly.
Of course Yoakam, as the preeminent heir of the California country tradition, has always played hot-rodded hillbilly music, and the smoke still given off by his live show comes from a combustion that leaves rubber on the road. Contemporary country has not caught up with what Dwight and Pete Anderson did in the cowpunk scene of early 1980s Los Angeles. No current act displays the edge, the power, and the unapologetic Bakersfield badassery that Yoakam does as his career’s fourth decade begins. In fact, since his last visit to this venue just north of Los Angeles, Yoakam’s flow between songs has gotten tighter, his delivery a little looser and more fun, and his band has remained energetic, on point, and swinging.
But as Keith Richards said, the great thing about American music is the sound of two or more cultures hitting each other. Audible in Yoakam’s work as bluegrass meeting Memphis rockabilly, and as a cowpunk frenzy in his live recordings from the earliest days, that collision is also heard in Whelan’s songwriting and playing. For Whelan it comes via the double-stopped boogie woogie favored by Chuck’s children, allied with a pop sensibility that has its roots in Orbison and Holly, as noted.
Commensurate with his status as a legend, Dwight’s stage presence and sound yielded shrieks of delight among his fans throughout the evening as he strummed his Gibson acoustic or his Epiphone electric and snaked a skinny leg out to shake in time with the rhythm. The crowd was spirited but mostly well-behaved, dancing in in the aisles and a falling into few moments of rowdy behavior, all of which felt authentic to the honkytonk heart of the proceedings. Also striking was how comfortable the opening frontman appeared facing a hall of rabid Dwight fans, with Whelan playing music that could be heard here as rocking the jukebox.
In sum, Dwight’s vitality as a songwriter, performer, and singer has not waned, and his masterful work in studios and on stage has resulted not just in his own catalog’s continued cohesion and power, but has also helped Whelan become a prime producer of solo artists (such as Rod Melancon) and a righteous bandleader in his own right. After Whelan and Yoakam delivered their scintillating sets covering as much American musical territory as one could hope for in a single evening, I shared the crowd’s sated elation.
If you have not already, you should pick up Dwight’s last two records and Brian Whelan’s debut. Most importantly, look out for their live shows and their new studio output. These guys aren’t just great musicians, but are significant aspects of the American spirit made audible.