Until last Friday, I've never seen Merle Haggard in concert.

By admitting that fact, I know I'm setting myself up for ridicule from the local country music powers that be. In my defense, let me just say I haven't been ignoring the Hag all these years. It's just that like our esteemed music icon, I, too, have a busy band schedule and it's often difficult to make plans.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that Merle's first of two soldout shows at the Crystal Palace last weekend was a bit of a life-changing occasion for me.

When I arrived at 6:45 p.m., the tour buses were parked, the lot was full, and downbeat was getting close. There was no line, and the crowd was seated and ready to get going. Though I've been to the Palace dozens of times, I always find something new to admire while walking by the museum cases. This time, the dirty, autographed Chuck Taylors belonging to "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville greeted me from behind the glass.

Besides the cool décor, another thing I like about shows at the Palace is that unless you make group table reservations, you never know who you're going to be seated with. Fortunately, Chuck Hobbs and Peggy Bryson, the couple seated next to Eye Street Editor Jennifer Self and I, were big Merle fans. Hobbs even went to school with the country-legend-to-be.

After some warm conversation with our tablemates, the lights dimmed and out walked good ol' Red Simpson to warm up the crowd. Simpson is always a character. I've caught him a few times onstage at Trout's, but to see him at the Palace was something else. He may getting up there in age, but hand him a guitar and a mic and he lights up like a honky-tonk misfit. We didn't get hits like "Highway Patrol" or "I'm a Truck," but we did get a couple of fun tunes, including a waltz about "Bakersfield," of course.

After Simpson left the stage, the intro was cued segueing into the man of the hour, Merle Haggard, looking like a proper country gent in his suit and white boots. I'm no authority on his music or history, but I do know enough to get by. Yes, I'm aware he's had health issues and, according to a lot of critics, has slowed down. But I wasn't there to be a critic. I'm a serious music lover who pays attention to those fine details the average concert-goer usually couldn't care less about. I took this opportunity to get the full experience of what I'd only heard about from hardcore fans.

Haggard and I actually spoke on the phone once for an interview last year, but being in the same room blew my mind. I was rooting for Merle like I knew him personally. Could be a weird connection we have, being from the same area as musical comrades. Launching into song after song with no set list, he led the band with opening riffs and a nod when it was someone's turn to solo. There was a large lyric prompter at his feet -- cued up by son Noel -- which wasn't a big deal. Michael Stipe from R.E.M. used to flip lyric pages onstage in front of arena-sized crowds.

As the show progressed, I recognized a few of the classics like "Mama Tried" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star." The arrangements were all perfectly clocked at a tight 2 to 3 minutes, with some great stories in between. I wouldn't want to compare this to a punk rock concert, but it almost was. The band smoked through 23 songs in under 70 minutes, switching gears and whoopin' it up. Merle never slowed down, even trading off some solos with his son Ben, who can pick with the best of them. He hit mostly all the right notes, with the occasional flub few would notice.

By the time he closed with "Okie from Muskogee," I felt redeemed, but I will keep kicking myself in the head for not catching him sooner. Friday is Haggard's 75th birthday, and I wish him nothing but the best.

Morrissey returns to Bako

Tickets go on sale next Thursday for a May 25th concert by influential '80s British singer/songwriter Morrissey, at Rabobank Theater. Still the sensitive bloke fans have become obsessed with since his years with The Smiths, he hasn't wavered from his outspoken ways. He's fiercely vegetarian, as was witnessed when I saw him at Coachella in 2009. During his performance of "How Soon Is Now?," he stopped the show to rail against food vendors selling what he described as "burning flesh." Plus, he's had some legendary public spats with Madonna and Elton John. Moz hasn't released any new material since he included a new track "("Glamorous Glue") on his latest greatest hits collection last year, but it doesn't matter. Between his Smiths and solo works, fans have enough material to wallow in their beautiful sorrows for hours. Opening will be Kristeen Young. Tickets range from $39.50 to $79.50, plus service charges. Ticketmaster.com; 852-7777.

The Underground opens

New all-ages venue The Underground opened last month inside the Golden State Mall. According to local promoter Tim Gardea, the section of the former Montgomery World Plaza can hold a crowd of 500. This weekend the venue will host shows from Upon a Burning Body, The Breather, and Betraying The Martyrs on Friday, followed by a Saturday show with Texas in July and others. Also to come are shows by all-female heavy metal band Kittie, on April 28, and Disney kid act R5 on May 4. Golden State Mall is located at 3201 F St. For more information, visit timgardeapresents.com.

Matt's Pick

Gregg Ginn and The Royal We at Sports & Spirits, 6633 Ming Ave., Friday, 9 p.m., free, 398-7077.

Guitarist Greg Ginn is probably best known for his work as one of the founders of LA punk legends Black Flag and for releasing some of the genre's most iconic works from bands like the Minutemen, Bad Brains, and Husker Du in the '80s on his SST label. Since then he's explored everything from country to jazz in his solo works. With his latest project, The Royal We, the elusive 57-year-old artist explores electronic music as a one-man band on his new Zappa-esque album, titled "We Are Amused." I gave it a listen. It's bizarre and inventive, much like all of his previous music. Don't miss this rare opportunity to catch him up close before he heads to Coachella next week.

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