- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

Dwight Yoakam opened his performance at the 9:30 Club Friday night seated contentedly in a chair, an acoustic guitar cradled in his lap.

First impressions are deceptive.

Within minutes, the Kentucky native ditched the chair and burst forth with the kind of country that purists lament has disappeared from radio playlists.

Mr. Yoakam sang alongside a stand-up bassist, a jack of all guitars (Keith Gattis) and a drummer. Although hardly the sort of big band one might expect to take on Mr. Yoakam’s richly textured songs, the quartet quickly demonstrated that they could equal, and often surpass, the recorded versions.

Normally, Pete Anderson is Mr. Yoakam’s right-hand man both in the studio and on tour, and his absence should have sent warning flares up to expectant fans. But Mr. Gattis’ wizardry more than compensated. In fact, Mr. Yoakam seemed reborn playing alongside a fresh face.

While Mr. Yoakam is ostensibly touring behind “Population: Me,” the singer-songwriter’s just-released CD, he played just three cuts from that short but sweet release, preferring to charge friskily through his back catalog.

Given its breadth, it’s no wonder he barely finished the last syllable of one song before beginning another.

The ornery crowd got plenty of oldies, from “Honkytonk Man” to his too-faithful take on Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister.”

The night’s main hiccup came when Mr. Yoakam peered out from under his tight-fitting cowboy hat to launch a profanity-laced tirade against a heckler.

The cuss words still hung in the air when Mr. Yoakam began “The Back of Your Hand,” the new album’s gorgeous single. The sudden shift in moods couldn’t have been more disorienting.

Mr. Yoakam has always freely covered his peers, and Friday night he turned his sights on songs from the likes of John Prine and Joe Ely. Too bad he didn’t treat the crowd to the new album’s “Trains and Boats and Planes,” a brilliant re-imagining of the unlikely Burt Bacharach original.

Maybe the crowd didn’t deserve such a delicacy.

The raucous faithful hooted in all the wrong places and refused to be quiet when Mr. Yoakam tried to speak to the audience.

No matter. Mr. Yoakam converted their chaotic energy into furious song. Tracks such as “Turn It on, Turn It up, Turn Me Loose” and the exhilarating “Fast As You” showed he won’t shy away from his music’s harder edge.

Mr. Yoakam, who appears almost unrecognizable to fans during his occasional acting forays (“Hollywood Homicide,” “Sling Blade”) minus his signature Stetson, has just a few choice stage moves. His favorite shuffle has him shifting to one side while his guitar is pulled the other way, his head turning as if in deference to the music.

The opening act’s lead singer, Ben Taylor, stands in the formidable shadow of his parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon. But with his impish set, he made a much better case for nepotism than Lisa Marie Presley, who seemed virtually paralyzed by fear during her performance last week at Wolf Trap.

The ash-blond Mr. Taylor sings in a silken voice that echoes daddy’s. Patching that sound together with a tight rock combo seems an ill fit at first, but give it time. The velvety voice proves a sweet counterpoint to his music, which has one shoe firmly planted in the casual ‘70s.

As if a son of James Taylor could rebel only so far, Mr. Taylor’s set showed a band capable of many textures and modes, slipping only during a conventional cover of Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl.” The song might have been the band’s way of appeasing the crowd, which murmured its approval throughout but clearly awaited the main attraction.

Mr. Yoakam repaid their support for nearly two hours without an ounce of performance fat. He remains a country standard-bearer, the consistency of whose recordings is mirrored by his capacity for greatness in concert.

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