By the time most artists attain legendary status, the tedium of life on the road has taken its toll, resulting in lackluster performances that tend to coast on nostalgia and not much else.
But a select few artists manage to beat the odds. And while I can't speak for recent fairground performances by Kenny Loggins or Steve Miller — not sure I'd even want to — I'd hazard a guess that Merle Haggard and his nine-piece band, the Strangers, put on one of the most inspired (and inspiring) shows in Colorado State Fair history. And judging from the response of the crowd packed into Pueblo's cavernous Southwest Motors Events Center last Wednesday, plenty of folks would agree.
From the moment the band came onstage, it was obvious that this show was going to be a memorable one, but not yet clear whether that would be in a good way: Haggard, whose concert dates last January were canceled when he was hospitalized with double pneumonia, stood center stage holding his electric guitar while one of his backup singers (both of whom were dressed in nurses' uniforms) hooked him up to an oxygen supply.
"Most of these songs were written at sea level," he later quipped during a lengthy set filled with unexpectedly vital renditions of Haggard jukebox staples like "If We Make It Through December," "Silver Wings," "Mama Tried," "The Bottle Let Me Down" and the obligatory "Okie From Muskogee."
Even more of a revelation was "Working in Tennessee," the top-notch title track to the 2011 album Haggard was promoting before health issues interrupted his tour. Having spent much of the night trading electric guitar licks with his son Ben Haggard, Merle picked up a bow for the old-school country throwdown, as Strangers sideman Scotty Joss played a spirited second fiddle and joined in with old-timey vocal harmonies.
Haggard's between-songs banter was equally disarming. "We're parked over here by the old prison," said the musician, who himself spent three years in San Quentin for attempted robbery. "I felt right at home as soon as we pulled in."
As for the coming week, you can catch Dave Mansfield's The Röxy Suicide, along with the Conjugal Visits and Elephant Six Collective associates Dressy Bessy, at a Saturday Zodiac show that's being billed as a "full night of decadent garage, glam, glitter and 70's punk." Or you could get an early start and venture to Woodland Park for Saturday's Mountain of the Sun Music Festival at Aspen Valley Ranch. The lineup for the Pikes Peak Community Foundation-sponsored event includes the Greencards, Sierra Hull & Highway 111, and Ryan Shupe & the Rubberband.
Also, if you're not going to check out the Flumps and DeVotchKa at CC's Armstrong Hall next Tuesday, the Continental will be swinging through town that same evening for a return visit to the Triple Nickel. The Boston-area band's frontman, Rick Barton, previously played guitar in the Dropkick Murphys, although Gram Parsons and the Modern Lovers may be more relevant musical touchstones.
And finally, do not forget the 100 percent essential, absolutely free, catch-it-or-spend-a-lifetime-of-regret 2012 Indy Music Awards Festival at Stargazers Theatre & Event Center on Sept. 6, which happens to be this Thursday. Last year's inaugural celebration featured 15 acts on three stages, and this year we're upping it to 22, including the Haunted Windchimes, We Are Not a Glum Lot, Grass It Up, the ReMINDers, and a special acoustic set from El Toro de La Muerte. Go here for the complete IMA festival lineup and schedule.