Dwight Yoakam may not have sung that particular Ray Price song Saturday night at the Arena Theatre - maybe he forgot; we've never seen a set list in a three-ring binder before - but he's sure got heartaches by the number. Troubles by the score. Take a minute, like he sang in melancholy finger-picker "The Back of Your Hand" (one of the few more recent songs he sang), and add them up. Take one or two. You'll note that Aftermath said "more recent" and not "post-stardom" in the preceding paragraph. He may not have George Strait's supernatural longevity on mainstream country radio, but in two and a half hours of hits, covers and deep cuts - some that cut real deep indeed - Yoakam proved he's still every inch a star. For one thing, Yoakam isn't even technically "on tour," which he mentioned early in the show when he thanked the audience for coming, acknowledging that the price of a ticket hurts more than usual these days. Sort of like some of his songs, but as he told us himself, Yoakam and Houston go back a ways. He mentioned late
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music critic Bob Claypool,who turned ex-KIKK DJ Joe Ladd onto Yoakam in the mid-'80s
, by name, spoke for a while about his admiration for native son Larry Gatlin - even mentioning Gatlin's U of H football career - before an impromptu cover of Gatlin's "If Practice Makes Perfect" and stopped "Streets of Bakersfield" mid-song to change lock-up line "spent some time in San Francisco..." to "spent some time down there in Houston..." The wildly enthusiastic crowd (not sold out, but not terribly far off) would have loved him even more, if such a thing were possible. Anyway, about those heartaches. There were ones that can be cured by alcohol, like bouncy bluegrass encore "Since I Started Drinkin' Again." The ones Buck Owens can soothe for a little while, as in roadhouse two-stepper "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose." The existential heartaches of "If There Was a Way," instructional heartaches of "Guitars, Cadillacs," insurmountable heartaches of "The Distance Between You and Me." Ones you bring upon yourself ("Blame the Vain," another new-ish one) and ones brought upon you ("Little Ways," one of Yoakam's real tried-and-trues). There were the kind you only feel in the sunshine and the rain ("It Only Hurts When I Cry") and the ones that are absolutely, positively the last heartache you'll ever feel again, like the one set to the plinking honky-tonk piano of "This Time." Until the next one comes along, that is. There were other people's heartaches too - the dying Southern derelict so far away from the land of cotton in "I Sang Dixie," the double-crossed fool who figures he'll have a better shot with some nameless Jezebel's younger sibling in Elvis' "Little Sister" and, in one of the evening's true take-your-breath-away moments, the yearning '70s-pop heartache - gorgeously rendered by Yoakam and his five-piece band - of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," prefaced by a verse of Elvis' comeback heartache-on-the-way, "Suspicious Minds." It wasn't all gloom and doom. Yoakam and band - led by ex-Maverick Eddie Perez on expert lead guitar - opened the show with the bang-bang-bang Buck Owens triple shot of "Under Your Spell Again," "Act Naturally" and "Streets of Bakersfield." Pure Johnny Horton honky-tonk ("Honky Tonk Man") or snarling L.A. roots-rock (Dave Alvin's "Long White Cadillac," which closed the show a long, long, long time after it began), they hardly took their collective foot off the pedal for a second, making even the toughest sentiments go down with a shot of vigor. In turn, that made the few times they did let up - "Dixie," "Blame the Vain," "Back of Your Hand" and the swooning swamp pop of "If There Was a Way" all stood out - all the more poignant. If your heart has ever been broken or even severely bruised - Aftermath's has, through our own careless actions and words - you do discover that even heartache can be its own sort of comfort, the kind Yoakam keys on in a longtime personal favorite that came near the end, "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere." It's a lonely, lonely place, but as those notes slowly soak into your soul, as they have a thousand times before and will a thousand times again, there really is no place you'd rather be. The only other alternative came soon after, in a "Fast As You" that closed the main set by more than living up to its title. In this alternate ending, you hurt and hurt and hurt until "The pain that shakes me/ Finally makes me/ Get up off of my knees." Yeah yeah yeah yeah.