Merle Haggard at the Palladium — a more incongruous pairing of artist and venue is hard to imagine.
The Palladium is a 1,600 seat behemoth, a monument to self-indulgence and self-congratulation erected in what is really nothing more than a mere suburb. Carmel, Indiana is not a real city, and it’s certainly not anything like the state’s multitude of farming communities and once-booming manufacturing outposts. No, there’s nothing in Carmel, Indiana but money, and lots of it. That, and the nagging feeling that perhaps something useful ought to be done with all that money.
And so the leaders and citizens of Carmel did something grand and preposterous. They built an opera house.
Not twenty minutes north of Carmel, there’s some real human suffering afoot — no jobs, no money, no way out, and more meth than you can shake a stick at. And in Carmel, Indiana, where Indiana’s wealthy go to sleep at night, some courageous folks took a great notion to ignore all of that and build something very, very pretty.
Good on them, I guess. It takes real nerve to throw $160 million into an undertaking so frivolous and so despairingly narcissistic when there are clearly better things that could be done with that kind of cash. It’s breathtaking, really.
And to beat all, the Palladium’s programming staff were either audacious or stupid enough to invite Merle Haggard to perform there. That’s right, Merle Haggard — former San Quentin inmate, reigning king of country music, and one of the culture’s keenest observers of life among the have-nots that scarcely sully the collective consciousness of Carmel’s residents.
It promised to be a clash of cultures, and to be perfectly frank, that’s what ultimately brought me to the Hag’s Halloween performance. What happens when you take 1,600 hard core country music fans, working men and women, to a place that could very well be the Midwest’s most stunning symbol of wealth and its attendant privileges?
Well, it’s a little tense. By any reasonable standards, the audience was tame. Mostly middle-aged and older folks out for a good time on a Thursday night. There were occasional hoots and hollers, some raucous applause, but nothing more. Still, venue staff and volunteers patrolled the aisles at regular intervals throughout the night, telling folks to quiet down and put away their cameras (even though we were all told at the start of the evening that photographs were acceptable, so long as flash wasn’t used). On more than a few occasions, audience goers murmured to one another about the heavy-handed approach (“What an asshole,” a woman to my left said after an usher quite rudely ordered her to put away her smart phone).
Haggard himself was nonplussed by the surroundings, quipping, “This is some place you’ve got here. A little intimidating.” Of course, Haggard wasn’t the least intimidated. Throughout, he proved the consummate entertainer and artist. He directed his ace band expertly without ever verging on the dictatorial, allowing each member room to stretch his chops. His singing, which I was admittedly a little concerned about given the man’s age and past health scares, was often exquisite, particularly during showstopping renditions of “Pancho and Lefty” and “Working in Tennessee” (during the latter of which he also treated the audience to some commendable fiddle work).
What most impressed, however, were the songs. He mined his impressive catalog for some real surprises, seeming to relish in particular his oft-neglected work of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. “Rainbow Stew”, “Big City”, and the absolutely beautiful “Kern River” were easy highlights, but they were not easy choices. That Haggard was able to transfix his audience with these relatively obscure numbers is a testament to his immense gifts, both as a singer and as a songwriter.
There were big hits, too, and they were a joy to experience, particularly here. Anthems like “Mama Tried,” “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” and “Okie from Muskogee” weren’t written for places like the Palladium, but they stood tall just the same. At times they blew the whole showy edifice of the venue apart, leaving nothing but an artist, his work, and the people.
And perhaps that was the night’s greatest triumph. Haggard’s work over the past five decades speaks to the dreams, desires and hard-won (and well-deserved) pride of the American everyman. Conversely, the Palladium speaks to altogether different impulses — exclusion, arrogance, and contempt. Even in such an inimical setting, Haggard, and his work, prevailed.