By Sarah Henning
Anchorage Daily News
PALMER -- Charlie Daniels burst onto the Borealis Theatre stage Saturday night with a string-smoking solo to open the feisty bar stool anthem “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye.”
In his red Western shirt, white cowboy hat and a belt buckle just shy the circumference of a pie plate, Daniels brandished his bow like nunchucks -- when he wasn’t using it to stun the fiddle gods.
Daniels may turn 71 in October, but he’s determined not to show it.
His savory bass-baritone and fiery fiddle were surprisingly unaffected by age during his Saturday night concert at the Alaska State Fair -- that is, when he was on stage.
The country music star left the audience alone with his band and took not one, not two, but three off-stage breaks during his set, which lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. It’s one strategy to recover energy during a show, but not my favorite. Especially when his six tight backing musicians filled that time with sludgy, forgettable blues-country numbers that were beneath their talent level.
Regardless, there was time enough to deliver radio-exact versions of all Daniels’ hits, including “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” “Simple Man” and “Long Haired Country Boy.” He didn’t play anything written after 1990, but the audience didn’t seem to care that he had nothing new to offer.
Daniels’ hit-making days are over. He makes news now for his strong political views and pro-military activities. But during the concert, he didn’t come close to touching Ted Nugent’s 2006 score on the fair rant-o-meter. Daniels did go on one really random tangent about how child molesters should be hanged to introduce “Simple Man.” The audience roared with approval.
The sold-out crowd of largely Baby Boomers slurped up Daniels’ party anthems, gospel nods and patriotic turns, including a bizarre hollering of “The Pledge of Allegiance” that felt more like a threat than a heartfelt promise. Unfortunately, his hoarse fiddle and funereal tempo on “The Star-Spangled Banner” turned our soaring National Anthem into a dirge, resulting in the worst version I’ve heard by a professional musician.
But some the wheat was worth the chaff. Nothing says fair fun more than the old-timey, “Hee-Haw” joy of classics such as “Rocky Top.” Daniels’ storytelling was enthralling on his colorful and menacing “El Toreador,” “Trudy” and “The Legend of Wooley Swamp.”
And of course, Daniels’ finale of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was thrilling.
He produced several killer solos that veered from the song’s recorded version and showed an amazing dexterity and artistic sensitivity, building dramatic tension on an emotional level rarely reached outside the classical realm.
The audience gave an impressive seven-minute-long standing ovation. But Daniels never returned. The crowd was palpably disappointed, but the artist made the right move. That energy couldn’t be matched.