JEWELS HANSON, the Fremont-born lead singer of the band

Appaloosa, could become a major national star in 2006. She is one of 10 contestants competing on the new season of "Nashville Star," the country version of "American Idol" that kicks off on March 14, and that means major exposure and a possible record deal.

Sunday night, however, Hanson wasn't primarily concerned with what might happen with her career down the road. She was too busy living in the moment and enjoying the thrill of opening up for a modern country legend in her hometown.

"Dwight Freakin' Yoakam," she exclaimed from the Saddle Rack stage. "I don't think we've had a star that big in our midst yet. If there is a picture of cool in the dictionary, it's got to be his."

Hanson wasn't the only one thrilled about being in the building to see this cool cowboy perform. In fact, many attendees were referring to this gig — which sold out well in advance — as the biggest show that the club has hosted since it moved from San Jose to

Fremont.

The 49-year-old Yoakam, who looks much closer to 29, certainly did his part to make the event live up to the advance hype.

Following an opening set by Appaloosa, during which Hanson sung some of the numbers that she will perform on "Nashville Star," Yoakam took the stage with a full head of steam and proceeded to highlight material from his most recent CD, 2005's "Blame the Vain.


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Opening with a double shot of new tracks, "She'll Remember" and "Blame the Vain," Yoakam sounded every bit as honky-tonk hip as he did when he first burst on the scene and caused a mini-roots revival with 1986's debut "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc."

Unfortunately, hip and popular don't always go hand in hand. Although Yoakam has only gotten better over the years, both in the studio and onstage, his popularity has continued to slip.

He's no longer ranked among the elite singers in the country world. That's why he's headlining in spots like the Saddle Rack instead of gargantuan houses such as the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, where he performed in 2002.

But his accountants' loss was certainly our gain on Sunday night. It was a joy to see this caliber of a country performer in the relatively intimate Saddle Rack.

Yoakam was out to sell the new album and performed at least half of the dozen tracks from "Blame the Vain." But he didn't let the sales pitch get in the way of showing the capacity crowd a good time.

He performed almost all the old hits the audience had come out to hear. He did skip "Ain't That Lonely Yet," from 1993's great "This Time," which was a shame. Otherwise, it would be hard to quibble about the selections in this 25-song offering.

The first "hit" performed wasn't a Yoakam classic — it was a Cheap Trick classic. Yet, the Stetson-clad crowd ate up Yoakam's countrified version of "I Want You to Want Me," which further shows how fully rock and country tastes have merged over the last 20 years.

His next trick was to turn back the clock for mournful versions of "Please, Please Baby" (from 1987's "Hillbilly Deluxe") and the title track off 1988's "Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room." He then changed the mood, convincingly, with a galloping run through "Turn It On, Turn It Up, Turn Me Loose" (from 1990's "If There Was a Way").

Yoakam's high lonesome voice, featured splendidly on the new songs "Three Good Reasons" and "Just Passin' Time," definitely stirred images of old-school country. Yoakam is a traditionalist, no doubt, but he's a traditionalist with a twist.

Although he wears a big ol' cowboy hat and a fancy suit, which makes him look like he's come straight from a gig with the ghost of Hank Williams at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Yoakam's band doesn't fit the picture. One band member wore a pink shirt and a jacket with a floral pattern, while two others were dressed in turtlenecks. It just goes to show that you can take the cowboy out of L.A. — the city where Yoakam first made his name — but you can't entirely take L.A. out of the cowboy.

But, really, why would you want to? Yoakam's charm has always stemmed in part from his wacky show-biz sensibility and his desire to be a star on both the stage and the screen (he's been featured in such films as "Panic Room," "Wedding Crashers" and, most notably, "Sling Blade").

He's simply a great performer, which he proved in abundance by ending his main set with fiercely enjoyable versions of the fan favorites "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Streets of Bakersfield," which was the singer's first No. 1 hit.

As he walked off the stage, looking every bit like the picture that accompanies the definition of cool in the dictionary, the singer could hear the crowd shout his name. And it sounded something like this:

"Dwight Freakin' Yoakam."

Write music critic Jim Harrington at jharrington@angnewspapers.com.