The most dangerous thing that can happen to an art form is for it to be treated gently — relevance calcified into reverence. There is no doubting Dwight Yoakam’s devotion to country music — his was a poignant presence in documentarian Ken Burns’ sprawling 2019 assessment of the genre — and his Friday night set at The Bomb Factory, before a passionate, near-capacity crowd, only served to reinforce his affections.
But rather than make his affinity for Buck Owens, Merle Haggard or Ray Wylie Hubbard feel like an homage at arm’s length, Yoakam channeled the ghosts of Bakersfield and Nashville into something like a holy rolling revival. In the moment, it was almost possible to reach back and touch the raw, dirty, early days of country’s fusion with its rougher, rowdier side.
Over two hours, the 63-year-old Yoakam — his jeans, as ever, breathlessly tight; the brim of his hat pulled low enough to cast a shadow across his smile — and his four backing musicians tore through more than two dozen songs, a set list that slammed one tune into another with scarcely a moment to breathe.
The spartan stage, lit perfunctorily and adorned with nothing more than Yoakam’s name on a video screen, befit the stripped-down, straight-ahead approach.
Even with a breakneck pace, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter breezily dropped pocket histories of his heroes into the beginnings and endings of songs. A steady beat served as a backdrop to weed-smoking anecdotes about Willie Nelson (“Willie … are you in there?” Yoakam asked, pantomiming waving away a wall of smoke) or prefacing his Laurel Canyon-indebted “Pretty Horses” with a drive-by recapping of how the Byrds and Linda Ronstadt helped beget the Eagles.
It’s likewise been four years since his last studio album (the bluegrass-inclined Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars …), and being freed from the promotional cycle meant he could freely roam across his catalog and indulge his inspirations: Opening with a rip-snorting take on Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” spinning into Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” and delivering a satisfying one-two punch of Owens (“Streets of Bakersfield”) and Haggard (“The Bottle Let Me Down”).
Although Yoakam’s moonshine tenor, signature step-toe-shuffle and swiveling hips drew raucous cheers, his backing band likewise provided plenty of reasons to roar: Drummer Mitch Marine provided the relentless backbeat upon which the entire night depended; guitarist Eugene Edwards, decked out in a spangled jacket and given to solos that scorched the ceiling; bassist Eric Baines, whose low-end work was matched by the high harmony notes he shared with Yoakam, and multi-instrumentalist Jamison Hollister, as adept at mournful fiddle as he was joyful piano.
Singling out a highlight would be impossible, although an extended Buck Owens medley deep in the evening — Yoakam’s own “Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose” bookended a thrilling run through “Buckaroo,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Act Naturally” — would be neck-and-neck with the vicious rendition of “Liar,” a shot of cheap whiskey slammed back at last call, and which Yoakam introduced with a snarl: “They would’ve called this cowpunk in the early ‘80s!”
Even in the present, Yoakam’s mind was never far from the past. Fortunately, reflection is a full-contact proposition for the country star, ensuring an evening those in attendance will not soon forget.