|The Hag doffs his hat at the start of his Grove set on April 11, 2013. Photo: Kelly A. Swift, for the Register|
Orange County had two chances to catch Merle Haggard on Thursday night, April 11, 2013.
The California native's initial appearance came when he threw out the first pitch at the Angels game against the A's.
But that was quickly overshadowed by Haggard's winning 70-minute concert across the parking lot at City National Grove of Anaheim.
Performing 20 songs spanning his 50-year career, the 76-year-old country legend brought his real-life inspired stories of love, loss, incarceration and mortality (he successfully battled lung cancer last decade) to a thrilled audience. The show's rewarding mix yielded cheers, sing-alongs, applause aplenty and tears from those around me.
Supported by a fantastic seven-member band, including his talented son Ben on lead guitar and two additional female singers, there was nevertheless no doubt that Haggard led the charge.
He sang and played his electric guitar with a confidence and skill that was never short of inspired, and his rich baritone connected from the first lines of "Big City," growing increasingly powerful as he tackled more nuanced material.
"Silver Wings" found his voice blending with the others in the group, and he further weighed in with a guitar solo that flowed gracefully into an arrangement featuring his pedal steel and fiddle players.
It wasn't until he had performed the first four songs of his set before he properly paused to chat with the crowd: "Good evening. Thank you very much. My name is Merle Haggard." The last line elicited as many cheers as some noteworthy songs still to come.
The set was weighted heavily in favor of the many hits he scored on country radio in the '60s-'80s. "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)," "If We Make It Through December" and "That's the Way Love Goes" were energetically offered with arrangements that breathed additional life into the material.
"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" featured a gleaming, speedy solo from Ben Haggard before Merle played a decidedly rawer one of his own. A bit later "If I Could Only Fly" featured Hag's most tender vocal, the ballad casting an emotive spell in the large theater.
The maverick also showcased his skills on fiddle during "Working in Tennessee," the title cut from his latest album, as well as on the bluegrass-flavored "Take Me Back to Tulsa."
After performing his most iconic hit, "Okie from Muskogee," Haggard sat down and ended the magical concert with another title track, the reflective piece from his 2010 album "I Am What I Am." Midway through it, he put aside his guitar and quickly left the stage, leaving his band to finish it off to still more resounding cheers.