Despite scoring his share of hit singles and regularly charting albums in the country Top 10 over a three-decade career, Dwight Yoakam has largely been an outlier in the mainstream country scene. He’s always been his own man, and in my estimation, has made music that’s just a bit too authentically country for the Nashville establishment.
He put all that on display during his show at the Mahaffey Theater on Sunday night. Backed by a versatile four-piece band, he played on a bare stage with a black backdrop and minimal lighting, absent the pageantry that drives a lot of country concerts these days.
Dwight simply showed up to play a bunch of tunes — one after another after another after another, with a bit of boot-scootin’ and leg-wiggling tossed in when the spirit moved him.
The result was a set that was more thorough and workmanlike than inspiring or transformative. Basically, he put in a solid night on the job. His devotees among the packed house got to check off most of tunes from their wish lists — but me, a casual fan, I left feeling as if the performance did not reach, or attempt to reach, beyond the routine.
It was somehow instructive that the emcee announced, “From Hollywood, California — Dwight Yoakam!” (Take that, Music City.) He emerged in his uniform of boot-cut jeans, spray-painted on, an untucked button-down shirt covered by a faded denim jacket, and a light-colored cowboy hat pulled just low enough to obscure his eyes.
Yoakam performed a full-career compendium, a balanced mix of originals and covers — all of them country tunes in one aspect or another. His band was pushed up in the sometimes-muddy mix (especially early on), making it hard for his robust vocals to connect on an emotional level. The house volume was a few ticks too loud to give the songs, or his singing, much in the way of nuance (although I did detect a few yodel-like flights).
The biggest victim of the mix was a sideman who played keyboards, fiddle, pedal steel, guitar, mandolin and percussion — sometimes more than one of them in the same song. It was a splendid display of musicianship that was, unfortunately, not all that audible.
After a four-song opening sequence capped by covers of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” and Buck Owens’ “Streets of Bakersfield,” Yoakam and company indulged in a tribute to the late Merle Haggard that included full versions of “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee.”
Probably the most interesting cover treatment was Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” played as mid-tempo rocker with a firm backbeat. Yoakam backloaded most of his best-known songs, starting with his first hit, a version of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man.” The finale continued with “Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” “Little Ways,” and “Guitars, Cadillacs.”
You could call it a crescendo — of sorts.