There comes a time when our musical heroes reach a certain age, we feel compelled to see them in concert — either out of respect or fear this could be the last time, or both.

Country-music giant Merle Haggard, 76, pulled into the State Theatre Friday night, marking the third consecutive year he's performed in the Twin Cities. The previous two were with his buddy Kris Kristofferson; this time, it was just Merle and his marvelous band, the Strangers. And the near-capacity crowd greeted him with a standing ovation when he walked onstage; he took off his fedora and dark glasses and bowed. No one questioned the sincerity of either gesture — his or theirs.

Haggard's voice is thinner and softer but he had a spark and spirit as his poetic and poignant songs and his quick and occasionally corny wit resonated loud and clear. He sang of good times and bad, love found and lost, working hard and doing hard time. He ­conducted the band with authority and played guitar solos with a depth of emotion that matched his words more so than his singing.

As always, Haggard's patter made fans — old and new (they wanted to witness the legend for themselves) — appreciate him even more. He joked about his getting new teeth, reading lyrics on a ­TelePrompTer, smoking marijuana and drinking booze. In fact, he even spontaneously came up with a song title as he babbled: "Let's Smoke a Beer."

After 50-some years onstage, the Country Music Hall of Famer knows how to roll with any situation. When a security guard shooed a female fan away from the front of the stage, Haggard spoke up, gently chiding the security guard: "Most of this music was designed for the toe."

There wasn't much dancing at the State, though Hag and the Strangers played plenty of Western swing along with ballads, blues and just good ol' old-school country. He even threw in a little yodeling (which was louder than his singin') on Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodel No. 7."

At 19 songs and 83 minutes, the set felt perhaps a bit short. Earlier this week, Willie Nelson, Hag's duet partner on "Pancho and Lefty," managed to deliver 30 tunes in 90 minutes at the Minnesota Zoo. But Merl's performance was more consistent and musically satisfying. Still, the faithful missed "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "If We Make It Through December," among others.

However, from all indications Friday, the good times with Haggard are not over for good, and we hope to get to see him in concert once again.

set list: