Country trio prove they’re the Last of a divine Breed

Jed Gottlieb writes about music, film and pop culture for local, regional and national publications.

Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price knew exactly what they were doing when they dubbed their triple bill the Last of the Breed Tour. Along with a dwindling handful of others, these three are the final torchbearers in country music’s wonderful-but-dying tradition.

At last night’s packed, but shamefully not sold-out, Bank of America Pavilion show, Willie, Merle and Ray embarrassed modern country with three sets of legendary performances of timeless songs. Unlike today’s stars, who slap a banjo and a “Hell Yeah!” on an abysmal rock tune and call it country, this trio knows that great country borrows from early electric blues, ’40s swing and ’50s r & b while maintaining a twang throughout simple-but-always-memorable narratives.

The night began with a mellow set of supper club country from Price. While the octogenarian doesn’t pluck a guitar or wear a ten gallon like the outlaws he shared the stage with, he’s a renowned western crooner who was ushered into the business by former roommate Hank Williams – Sr., mind you – at the Grand Ole Opry. The Boston crowd was well aware it was seeing a legend at work and greeted the opening notes of “Release Me,” “Heartaches by the Number” and “City Lights” with knowing cheers.

A set of Haggard’s honky tonk tunes followed. The pup of the group at a youthful 74, Haggard donned his well-worn telecaster and thumped through some of his best-known songs including “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” But the highlights were the singalong “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee,” featuring an unexpected Nelson, who emerged for the first time midsong.

Still reinventing the tempo to every lyric, usually midway through a line, Nelson, 76, offered a set that alone would have been worth the price of the ticket. Willie and the family ripped through greatest hits and some that will be, including live staples “Whiskey River,” “Beer for My Horses” and “On The Road Again” and gentle gems “Always on my Mind” and “Still Is Still Moving to Me.”

But it was the duets that made the night transcendent.

Nelson and Haggard gave fans a dream show with a rousing rendition of their storied duet “Pancho & Lefty.” Then they topped it when Nelson and Price traded verses and Nelson and Haggard traded licks on “I’ll Keep On Loving You.” Finally they transcended any expectation with a “Time Slips Away”/“Crazy”/“Night Life” medley, with Nelson and Haggard doubling their guitars on the melody and Price driving it home with his soaring vocals.

All at the age where this could be their final tour, or even show, none of the guys phoned it in. They all knew – as much as the fans did – that this tour will never be seen again.

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