Dwight Yoakam at Arena Theatre, 12/20/2013

Dwight Yoakam Arena Theatre December 20, 2013

An odd thing occurred at the Dwight Yoakam show at Arena Theatre Friday night: the cast of Federico Fellini's epic remake of Urban Cowboy showed up to party. Rhinestones, Jack and Coke, and all.

While Yoakam and his band of musical throat-cutters ran through a 30-song set list with all the abandon of pirates sacking a town full of vestal virgins, a crowd mainly consisting of people who looked like they did their dancing at Gilley's three decades ago got drunk and fairly rowdy, although as best we could determine from where we were sitting no one threw panties on the stage -- or disrobed (thank God!).

Yoakam himself was splendid and all-business as he led his band of sequined marauders through their paces with military precision. In fact, the usually loquacious Yoakam barely talked at all during his two-hour pressure-cooker set, only bothering to introduce one song all night, the title track from his most recent album 3 Pears.

But he left no doubt as to his influences and versatility as he subtly inserted Buck Owens' "Buckaroo" as an instrumental bridge to "Act Naturally" (which Owens also covered during his career) before offering a paint-peeling, super-revved-up version of Elvis's classic "Little Sister" within the first 15 minutes of the show.

Call Yoakam honky-tonk or country all you want -- or need to -- but when the lights come up his band rocks harder than most. In fact, only a handful of songs he dropped during his set -- "1,000 Miles From Nowhere," "Streets of Bakersfield," "I Sang Dixie," "This Time," "Close Up the Honky Tonks," and a couple others -- could be called country. Yoakam's versions of Johnny Horton's classic "Honky Tonk Man" or "Little Ways" have as much rockabilly swagger and stomp-your-butt attitude as Sleepy LaBeef.

But try as one might to just listen to Yoakam and his aces do their thing, the scene kept insisting to be noticed. Along the way it got mildly amusing, like when the fortysomething cowpoke all in black with his felt bullrider hat leaned over and asked, "Isn't this the song where he shakes his butt? Not that I'm gay for him or anything."

Well, then.

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An inebriated, over-the-hill honky tonk queen decided it was her duty to stand at her front-row seat and, with wild hand gestures and drunk-ass posterior vibrations, beckon to the entire section to stand up and dance. Failing miserably in this mission, she simply grabbed her date and they danced -- of course, blocking the vision of 30 people behind them. Violence was somehow avoided.

Even more amusing (sure it was) was the fiftysomething lady next to me who spent half the show holding one hand in the air and shaking her upper torso in a manner that suggested she may be slightly familiar with stripper poles and abundant alcohol. At least that was my impression until I overheard, "She's acting like she's riding the bull at Gilley's."

Yeah, that's it.

I didn't do a head count, but it is highly possible that half the women in the building either came down to edge of the pit and posed for goofy-ass cell phone photos or, unable to enlist a photographer, stood gawkily attempting selfies while trying to make sure Yoakam was strategically placed in the background. Of course there were the bros who had to have their shots, never mind the constant distraction these efforts at photography caused throughout the entire show. Yeah, boy, it's all about the music

So much for the hundreds of warnings, signs, and announcements about NO PHOTOGRAPHY. An alien attending his first concert on earth would assume that a) many Houstonians can't read and b) many Houstonians are too immature and self-obsessed to follow instructions.

And don't think I'm letting the men off light here, although they were seriously overshadowed by the ladies. The guy three seats down who looked like a wax statue of Billy Joe Shaver must have gone to get Jack and Coke a dozen times in two hours. By the second hour, he seldom bothered to sit down, preferring to do his hillbilly Romeo glide-step endlessly and block the aisle as he whirled and twirled without once spilling a drop. If he'd faceplanted, I doubt anyone around him would've been surprised.

Occasionally Yoakam seemed to make visual connection, staring at the nearest audience members through the bright lights. The look on his face seemed to say, "So, I work in a circus after all. At least I'm not the freak show."

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But distractions -- and there were many -- aside, the main message was that Yoakam is at the top of his game right now, and seems to thoroughly enjoy a serious workout with a tight, small band that knows few limits. Everyone in Yoakam's band is busy every second, especially drummer Mitch Marine, who often taps out rhythms that provide a segue to the next song while Yoakam and lead picker Eugene Edwards change instruments.

One reason the band knows few limits is utility man Brian Whelan, who stays in the background where he alternates constantly between rhythm guitar, piano, accordion, maracas, and steel guitar. That flexibility and musicianship allows Yoakam to incorporate textures and nuances that were key to his recordings while maintaining a small unit. The harmonies were hauntingly brilliant, a class above, with Whelan, Marine, and bassist Jonathan Clark providing Yoakam with Eagles-quality backup.

A master of set lists and pace, Yoakam ramped the rock and excitement level to all-night highs as he closed a two-hour set -- he hadn't even taken a drink of water -- when he tipped his hat to Texas with Lefty Frizzell's "Always Late," staggered jerkily into his own "It Only Hurts Me When I Cry" and followed up with a stinging back-to-back-to-back threesome of big hits, "Little Ways," "Guitars Cadillacs Etc.," and a fires-of-Hell version of "Fast As You," which brought the crowd to its feet in tribal frenzy.

The encore was a crowd-pleaser of seasonal songs including Elvis's "Blue Christmas," "Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby," and a rocking take on Chuck Berry's "Run, Rudolph, Run." Yoakam kept the energy high, but it was also time to let the air out of the room and make an escape. Mission accomplished.

Yoakam is currently at a level of intensity virtually unrivaled in what must now be called Americana rather than country since country music has soiled its pants with the new country of Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, and other glorified hacks. Yoakam backs up to none of the kings of Americana like Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Mumford and Sons, or Avett Brothers either. Really, you want to follow this guy on a live show? Bring your fire extinguisher, 'cause Jerry Lee's probably gonna blowtorch the piano.

It really did recall the old Urban Cowboy glory days at Gilley's, the drunks, the goofballs, the twanged-up excitement, everyone "lookin' for love in all the wrong places." I don't think I would've batted an eye if Yoakam had ended with Mickey Gilley's monster hit, "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time?" With this crowd, you had to hope so.

Personal Bias: Yoakam has never gotten the credit he deserves as a practitioner of cowpunk. As noted above, he can kick a bunch of rock bands' asses.

The Crowd: See above.

Random Notebook Dump: Maybe never in the history of humans -- outside a Cult concert or a retired stripper's convention -- has there been so much jiggling on so many torsos. The only saving grace was that Christmas sweaters were at a minimum, replaced for the evening by leather, pleather, suede, rhinestones, and enough bling to make Jared jealous.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Sit your drunk ass down."


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