[30 November 2005]
If jeans-wearing were an Olympic sport, Dwight Yoakam would every single medal and possibly even lead some sort of honorary jeans-parade. The man—whew boy—can move some denim. In his 1988 Austin City Limits show, now out on DVD from New West, Yoakam’s wearing some of the tightest pants of his career in a spangle-y, glittery costume free-for-all of old school rockabilly chic. On anyone else, it might seem dated. On Dwight, it’s essential to the effect of his songs: harsh treatises on hard relationships. It’s not that better understanding of his music comes following blinding by sequins, it’s simply that with the outfit, the Stetson cocked shadowing mysterious eyes, the occasional burst of Elvis-swagger and creaky, freaky rockabilly heehaw, a commanding performer is created, so perfectly suited to his own space. His twangy songs so aptly fit this self-created image that, 17 years on, should he feel so inclined, he could still get away with this amount of bling.
KRLU-TV’s Austin shows are perfect for showing off a top-to-toe package like Yoakam. The camera, set at stage center, rarely leaves the star of the show, effectively capturing the finer points of the performance. In Dwight’s case, close-ups reveal brow sweat, darting eyes taking in the crowd reaction to every song, and the slight throat vibrations that occur when he hits his high notes. (Noteworthy, too, is just how crystal clear the transfer is here—not a spot of digitization can be seen.) The few times the camera does move, it’s to a joyful audience, or the Austin skyline, perfect visual accompaniment for a song like Yoakam’s sad Southern tribute, “I Sang Dixie”.
But that was always the point of these Austin shows. Get a performer in front of an audience and watch, as the audience watches, just how the performer does his thing. The only problem with such a set up is how non-responsive that audience can at times be. Yoakam’s songs might represent unforgiving love or hard times, but they’re usually upbeat. Yet, throughout the entire set, the Austin crowd remains glued to their seats. In those rare moments the camera pans to them, heads are moving and legs are shaking—so why aren’t they dancing? Is this a rockabilly show or what? At least Dwight resists the subdued route—mad audience reaction or not, he still busts out the moves.
It’s possible that the Austin audience sees the night as more showcase than show, and that’s fine. It’s weirdly perfect in hindsight, seeming at times as if Dwight’s auditioning for his current standing as a genre great. Much as his recent Blame the Vain is another great record in a lone line of great records, it’s hard to dispute that early Dwight is the best Dwight. Hearing these old performances of his staple songs, “Little Sister”, “Streets of Bakersfield” and, “Buenos Noches from a Lonely Room”, is fascinating in light of their—and his—now classic status. You get to vicariously enjoy, too, through a surprised and excited audience, just how thrilling that half-yodel opening on “Little Ways” was before it became a highlight of his later shows.
The voice during this show is flawless. It’d want to be, too, with that single glaring spot leaving little room to hide from error. The set is stripped back to just the band and Dwight, moving through a grand collection of bluegrass and rockabilly classics—Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man”, Stonewall Jackson’s “Smoke Along the Track”, Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues”. Dwight’s own songs fit well between the covers—from the fun (“Little Ways”, “Guitars, Cadillacs”), the sad (“I Sang Dixie”, “Buenos Noches”), and the scary (“What I Don’t Know”). It’s a journey, really, from Dwight’s roots through his interpretation of those roots to new, instant classics that recall the old stuff, but manage utter originality—mainly down to Dwight’s strange and compelling vocal tones.
The DVD contains the show with a song selection tool for easy navigation between tracks. There is a slight issue with that tool—songs begin after Dwight’s sincere and often quite funny Storytellers-type introductions. He talks about meeting Johnny Cash before singing “Home of the Blues”, recalling Cash’s endorsement of his tune with a cute impersonation. He introduces “I Sang Dixie” with a brief, somber word on its origins. He introduces “Little Ways” with a near stand-up routine about male/female dynamics (“It’s all a big bluff, us being tougher than the women ... you’re only fooling yourselves, guys”), and honors his hero, Buck Owens, before bringing Owens, and piano accordion player Flaco Jiminez, out to perform “Streets of Bakersfield”. Skip to songs and you’ll miss all of this—it’s a solvable problem, though, with a bit of rewinding.
Musically and vocally outstanding, the show demonstrates why Yoakam’s career has flourished. The band is tight (ignore their horrendous mullets), the arrangements are superb, and Dwight’s voice is like polished bullion. It’s not as good, obviously, as the brilliant Dwight Live CD, which displays both the best of the old and the intensity of the new, but as the only live Dwight DVD on the market, it’s excellent.