Friday, August 03, 2012

Merle Haggard is Okie (From Muskogee) Dokey; Sound, Heat at Congress Theater Are Far From It -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Merle Haggard
with Jamey Johnson
Congress Theater, Chicago
August 1, 2012

I never saw Johnny Cash perform live, and never even considered doing so when the opportunity may have existed, but now I wish I had.

Having come to realize that greatness transcends genres, despite a general apathy for country music, a few years ago I made a point of seeing Willie Nelson for the first time. I also began exploring the music--mainly the many hits--of Merle Haggard.

I had seen Haggard in 2005 on a bill with Bob Dylan--a pretty cool pairing of legendary songwriters--but never as a headliner. Noting the cheap ticket prices for his Wednesday concert at the Congress, and not knowing how much longer the 75-year-old will be touring, I made a day-of-show decision and bought a cheap ticket at the door.

Preceding Haggard was Jamey Johnson, a country singer about half his age who embodies the low-key, no-nonsense songs of gravity--almost a white southern blues, if you will--approach to country music that is what I enjoy about Johnny, Willie, Merle and Waylon much more than many latter-day purveyors of twangy songs about cars & bars, beer & whiskey.

I'd checked out Johnson's critically-acclaimed albums, That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, at some point, but not enough to really recognize anything he played. He certainly seemed like a substantive performer exuding integrity rather than buffoonery, although there was perhaps a bit too much low-key sameness for me to get too excited about his hourlong set.

A nice moment came late in Johnson's performance when he brought a young girl--perhaps his daughter but I couldn't hear his introduction--on stage to sing with him on "In Color," which Spotify lists as his "Top Hit."

At about 10:00pm, as Haggard took the stage--looking a bit like his name, but seemingly in good spirits--it dawned on me that the average age of the headline performer at the last three shows I'd witnessed at the Congress Theater is 79, having seen Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis there in 2011.

I was also soon reminded that the 85-year-old former movie theater--imposing but not particularly ornate and far from refurbished--in not exactly the best place to see a concert, even if the price is right.

First of all, on a warm but not sweltering evening outside in Chicago, inside the Congress it was plenty hot. Not quite "I think I'm gonna leave" hot, but with no air conditioning or cooling fans apparent, rather sweatily uncomfortable up in the balcony.

Even worse was the audio quality during Haggard's performance. A couple times early in his set, he stopped the music, called a roadie onstage--who never seemed to check anything--and spoke to the crowd about the subpar sound. And from the second row of the balcony, I had a tough time hearing his vocals.

I obviously can't know if the problems were with Haggard's microphone & equipment, his technicians or possibly even his singing, but the issues made me recall that both Berry and Lewis were also demonstrably troubled by audio issues at the Congress. Without specifically knowing where the blame lies, I can't help but be terribly disappointed by my concert experiences at the venue.

From what I could tell, Merle's voice was in good stead and I enjoyed hearing him (as best I could). "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Pancho and Lefty" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" were the only songs I recognized, but the crowd's response indicated that a number of others were notable Haggard chestnuts. (I don't yet see a setlist posted on

Toward the end of his 75 minute performance, Haggard brought Johnson on-stage to duet on a song I also couldn't name. In addition to not being able to discern much of what Haggard was singing--the band itself was loud enough to hear, but their volume could have used a boost as well--I absolutely couldn't make out anything he said from the stage. That's a shame because he seemed to be relatively affable and verbose.

So I suspect that my @@@1/2 rating may be a 1/2@ shy of reflecting the performance Haggard gave, and more accurately gauges--and perhaps even overrates by 1/2@--my enjoyment of it, which was substantially diminished because of factors seemingly beyond Merle's control. Nothing I heard was bad except for the way I heard it.

I knew going in that this was a show I would have to enjoy without the luxury of already knowing and liking many of the songs. I was fine with that and am glad I got to see Merle Haggard while the opportunity still exists. If only I could have heard him a good bit better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Merle haggard is a God. The Congress Theater is the worst shithole in Chicago. We were in the 6th row, and we could barely hear him either.

I will never go to another show at Congress, and I hope that they close it down until a buyer who cares about the venue shows up.