Last of the Breed
. 2007

Director: Lawrence Jordan

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Last of the Breed (2007) stars Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson & Ray Price at the end of their "Last of the Breed" tour. They'd done fifteen shows in all. It's too bad there wasn't budget to film half a dozen of these concerts & then select the best performances on the best nights, as these old guys don't have good nights every time.

This videoed concert records 35 songs from their March 35 performance at the Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, Illinois, plus some extras, notably an interview. A related CD features 22 songs, mostly better takes.

Last of the BreedIf Ray Price had any good nights on this tour, this wasn't one of them, & the tendency of critics to praise this concert is on the order of praising any elder statesman just for being able to stand.

He murders "San Antonio Rose," "Make the World Go Away," & just about everything he sings. Ray at age 81 was frail & may have performed better early in the tour before he got this tired; we'll never know, as we have only this record of him as no longer able to sing.

When Ray comes on stage (& he vanishes periodically, probably to rest while Willie & Merle keep the stage), it really seems he climbed out of the grave with his vocal cords already half turned to sludge. Only when he sings "Life's Been a Pleasure" is the ruinous voice dramatically appropriate, & even that's sad, as it does come off as a happy grampa saying goodbye on his deathbed.

This is a true old-time country-western concert like the classic days of the Grand Old Opry or swing westerns from old B-westerns with singing cowboys. And who can't wish country music was still country music. These three geezers would surely seem to be the right ones for such a nostalgia fest, if only they'd all still had their voices.

For whoever loved them at their greatest, this is an emotional roller coast, a mix of nostalgic glory that these guys are still around & can still remember the lyrics, to the pathos of Ray & even WIllie simply not having great voices they once had.

The best is from Merle Haggard, who seems yet to be a few years away from having his voice begin to crumble. Just about everything he sings is done well; he seems the embodiment of Gene Autry in "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," & overall he saves the concert from being the dismal sorrowing thing the other two legends would've left it.

Merle & Willie on "Lost Highway" & a couple others come out well for Willie too, who has a lot of practice covering his failing voice. But they can't easily harmonize, needing instead to trade off verses, because Merle tends to sing in proper time & Willie likes to play with missing the beat vocally. Willie has a frew guitar moments that are thrilling, & his devotion to that worn guitar with a hole in its case is sweet as people come.

In truth Willie does deliver a couple of the best performances of the show but on some numbers including his signature song "On the Road Again," he doesn't hit more than three out of five notes right, & it's just sad to hear it.

When Willie sings he's rarely as good as Merle, but once you get past "On the Road Again" which is just too pitiful, most of the rest is at least forgiveable, & occasionally done well even if not as well as once upon a time.

The songs themselves are good ones. But to hear "Crazy" ruined by Willie & Ray together, & a few suchlike just as badly butchered, can be dispiriting.

Looking for the strong moments, Willie & Merle together on "Pancho & Lefty" make this story-song simultaneously uplifting & sorrowful, & they sing it brilliantly. Merle singing "Take Me Back to Tulsa" again captures perfectly the sound of B western movie swing songs. And if not for Ray reminding one over & over again that death is just around the corner, the appealing honkytonk moments would've outnumbered the miserableness of Willie's once-golden voice quavering just outside his countrol.

A liking for the concert is strictly related to whether you think you'll feel lucky to see them while they're at least ambulatory, or if you expected great country singing. You won't get a lot of the latter, but you'll get some; & maybe it's better to see them performing in the less-than-brilliant twilight years than never to have seen them at all.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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