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Live Review: Dwight Yoakam w/ The Mavericks and Landon Parker @ The Anthem — 5/31/24

In his recent performance at The Anthem, Dwight Yoakam, the man who’s been hailed as “too country for Nashville,” put on a blistering performance that would’ve shamed most rock bands in its intensity and fervor. He showed once again why he’s a longtime favorite of critics and why he’s attracted a crossover audience of mainstream rock fans.

Yoakam’s songs may be hardcore honky-tonk grounded in the Bakersfield sound tradition of Buck Owens, but he eschews a lot of the tropes found in contemporary mainstream country. You won’t find mentions of trucks or guns in the lyrics of his songs. I’ve come to the hypothesis that many people who say they don’t like country really dislike the regressive social positions often found in the music. But that’s incidental, not a constituent part of the genre. People who “don’t like country” tend to like Dwight because you don’t find any of this stuff in his work.

Dwight does things differently because he’s a different kind of cat from most of the folks in the country establishment. Though he briefly tried to make a career in Nashville, he cut his teeth in Los Angeles, where he often played in rock clubs alongside bands like The Blasters and Los Lobos, and even with punks like X. And though he’s native of Kentucky, with the accent to show for it, he mostly grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where he briefly attended The Ohio State University before dropping out to pursue his dreams in music. On a personal level, he’s a lifelong teetotaler and a vegetarian. 

He’s also a bit of an eccentric, with a unique and forceful personality. At The Anthem on May 31, this side of him came out when he told a story about his friend Billy Bob Thornton being abducted by aliens on his way to a gig in Annapolis with his band, The Boxmasters. (Dwight and Billy Bob are longtime friends, and Yoakam had a major role in Thornton’s film, Sling Blade.) The story was a perfect setup for the ballad “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” and it wouldn’t surprise me if Dwight uses the same story at all his gigs, modified to fit the locale.

Watch the official music video for “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere” by Dwight Yoakam on YouTube:

At The Anthem, Dwight kicked off his set with the hardest rocking version of the traditional song “Keep On The Sunny Side” I’ve ever heard, followed by one of his originals, “Please, Please Baby.” Next, he played tribute to one of his foremost influences, Elvis Presley, covering “Little Sister.” The Buck Owens portion of the evening followed, with “Streets of Bakersfield,” which Dwight recorded as a duet with Buck. He said that, other than that song, he’d eschewed Buck’s material while he was alive, because he felt Buck had “ownership” of those songs. After Buck’s passing, however, he recorded the excellent tribute album, Dwight Sings Buck, which included “Think Of Me.”

The set continued with “What Do You Know About Love,” “Things Change,” “I’ll Be Gone,” and the title tracks from This Time and Blame The Vain. He talked about how he wrote “The Heart That You Own” while watching the movie “The Fabulous Baker Boys.” He kept things going with “Always Late With Your Kisses,” “Pocket of A Clown,” “You’re The One,” and “Turn It Up, Turn Me On, Turn Me Loose.” He covered Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” which works well for him, as it’s kind of a rockabilly tune. He introduced “Ain’t That Lonely” as “a sweet little tender love song. I didn’t write it. My heart isn’t as sweet and tender as this.”

After “Ain’t That Lonely,” Dwight covered Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” The set was rounded out with “Nothing’s Changed Here,” “Honky Tonk Man,” “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” “Little Ways,” and “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.” He closed the main set with “Fast As You,” then left the stage with his band. The audience was a bit confused when the lights came on, leading us to wonder if that was the end of the evening, but they came back out and played “Suspicious Minds.”

The evening also included an hour-long set by The Mavericks. Fronted by the honey-voiced Raul Malo, they play a mix of country, old-school rock, and Latin music. A fellow audience member commented that they were a strange pairing with Yoakam, but I disagree. While his music is more influenced by California sounds, Yoakam is not averse to throwing some Tex-Mex into the mix, and his May 31 set included a number with accordion. Furthermore, the shadow of the King of Rock n’ Roll hangs over both Dwight and The Mavericks. Both also appeal to non-traditional fans of country. While there were a few cowboy hats in The Anthem, it really was just a few, and most of the people in attendance looked like your typical DC professionals. 

(I suspect that Steve Earle’s description of an “NPR audience” would fit this crowd. And this isn’t a bad thing: I really enjoyed how the audience was respectful throughout the evening’s performances, listening attentively during the songs and not trying to interrupt the artists by calling things out. There was plenty of cheering and enthusiasm for the music, sure, but none of it interfered with the show.)

The Mavericks just released a fantastic album, Moon & Stars, and their set included several songs from the LP. They kicked things off with “Without A Word,” followed by “Overnight Success,” the tale of an aspiring honky-tonk star. “Live Close By (Visit Often),” another album cut, is a classic country cheating song.

Watch the official lyric video for “Live Close By (Visit Often)” by The Mavericks with Nicole Atkins on YouTube:

After that one, they went back into their catalog to play some of their most beloved songs, including “There Goes My Heart” and the title cut from their breakthrough album, Oh, What A Cryin’ Shame. After “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight,” they returned to their new material with “And We Dance,” followed by “Moon & Stars.” The superb “The Years Will Not Be Kind,” which kicks off the record, is a co-write with the legendary Bernie Taupin, best known for long collaboration with Elton John. The set was rounded out with “Rolling Along,” “Back In Your Arms Again,” and “All You Ever Do Is Bring My Down.”

Before The Mavericks performed, the evening’s festivities began with a 30-minute set by a young Nashville singer-songwriter, Landon Parker. I’m less familiar with his music, which is more akin, lyrically, to the mainstream Nashville style that doesn’t usually do a lot for me. There were hints of Mellencamp and the Stones in his melodies, but the music was pure country. 

While I’ve seen Raul Malo play solo, this was my first time seeing The Mavericks live, and their big, boisterous sound didn’t disappoint. All my expectations were met, and then some. Dwight, of course, is an electrifying live performer, and he was a good as I’ve seen him, which to say, exceptional.

Here are some photos of Dwight Yoakam and his opening acts at The Anthem on May 31. All pictures copyright and courtesy of James Todd Miller.


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