GEORGE JONES, Merle Haggard, and Conway Twitty, the three country artists who shared the bill at the Baltimore Arena Saturday night, all have one thing in common besides being three of the most recognizable names in the business:
Both in terms of record sales and creative output, all three are presently in that uneasy free-fall zone between superstar and legend. Though each is still present on the country charts, they no longer dominate as they once did.
George Jones, considered by many to be country music's most gifted vocalist, opened the show.
In recent years, Jones has earned a reputation as an erratic, temperamental performer who sometimes doesn't put on much of a show, that's when he even shows at all.
Fortunately, this time around, Jones was not only on time, but in fine voice and seemingly fine spirits. He turned in a relaxed and expansive 45-minute set which covered many of the high points of his 35-year recording career.
Jones turned in particularly soulful renditions of honky-tonk favorites from his vast repertoire: "Bartender's Blues," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "A Picture of Me Without You," and "One Woman Man," among others.
He leavened things with novelty tunes like the autobiographical "No Show Jones" (a duet originally recorded with Haggard, which sounded somewhat sloppy without him) and "A Few Old Country Boys," a recent duet hit with Randy Travis (which, without Travis, sounded like half a song).
Unfortunately, Jones tends to be a lazy performer. Every time he gets up a good head of musical steam, singing in that remarkable powerful and supple voice of his, he has this cloying, self-effacing habit of turning the proceedings over to his unremarkable backup band for an instrumental or a round of jokes. It's as if, after all these years, it still hasn't occurred to him that the people in the audience paid to hear him sing, not to hear another listless version of "Black Mountain Rag" from his road band.
If Jones' show was, at times, loose and ragged, Conway Twitty's was so tightly paced as to be almost metronomic.
Twitty wastes no time with stage patter. Instead, he segues briskly from one hit to the next, often draping his vocal performances in an sea of multi-colored lights and an aural slush of pop-flavored synthesizers and keyboards.
Twitty paid homage to his hard country roots with hits of yesteryear such as "I'd Love To Lay You Down," "I Know You've Never Been This Far Before," and "It's Only Make Believe."
But far too much of his portion of the show was devoted to the sort of syrupy, pop-country love ballads -- "Crazy In Love," "Goodbye To Me," and his bathetic version of Bette Midler's "The Rose" -- songs which have earned him a somewhat dubious reputation as country's sedate latter-day answer to Tom Jones.
Merle Haggard, who closed things out, is -- like Jones -- a brilliant, albeit erratic and temperamental musician.
But he, too, seemed relaxed and expansive. Along with The Strangers, his superb backup band, he turned in a brief but satisfying set that managed to cover any number of high points of his long career: "Silver Wings," "Okie From Muskogee," "MaMa Tried," "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," "Today I Started Loving You Again," and "Working Man's Blues."
These songs, along with Haggard's confident, rich vocals, and dexterous lead guitar work, reminded listeners that -- as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader -- he remains one of the most talented figures in contemporary popular music.