Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
February 17, 2010
Better Than: Watching classic country performances on YouTube and thinking to yourself "damn, I wish I'd seen so-and-so before he died."
Dressed head to toe in black, 73-year-old legend Kris Kristofferson looked as cool as ever opening Wednesday night's inspired pairing with Merle Haggard at Bass Hall--one of only six dates on the duo's current tour. Dedicating "Shipwrecked in the Eighties" to "the veterans of Iraq opposing the war" (and throwing in a shout out to recently departed Fort Worth comrade Stephen Bruton), Kristofferson set the tone early, reminding the packed hall that they were in for an evening with two of America's best socially-conscious songwriters.
Obviously humbled by his company, Kristofferson then invited Haggard and his Strangers to the stage for a nearly two-hour performance that's sure to go down as one of the loosest in Bass Hall's history. The Strangers--featuring Merle's 17-year-old son Benny on guitar and a piano player named Colosio--were clearly unfamiliar with most of Kristofferson's material, and at times they didn't seem to remember the Hag's either.
To be fair, Kristofferson didn't seem bothered by the formalities of intros and outros, playfully joking with Haggard about the looseness of the affair after numerous flubs and awkward endings. But no matter how rickety the performance, Kristofferson's formidable catalog still stood strong, from the slightly creepy man-girl romance of "Jody and the Kid" to the still indestructable "Sunday Morning Coming Down." After all, no one has ever accused Kristofferson of being a great singer or guitar player at any time in his long career--he's more of a poet, as he proved time and time again on a night that felt more like an informal guitar pull in front of a couple thousand close friends than a major concert event.
Haggard fared far better musically, adding jazzy leads to Kristofferson's songs and singing his own classic numbers in a voice far stronger than any man down half a lung has any right to. Songs like "They're Tearing The Labor Camps Down" (Oh they're tearing' the labor camps down/And I feel a little sentimental shame/Where's a hungry man gonna live at in this town?/Oh they're tearing the labor camps down") and "That's the News" seem to only grow more relevant with each passing year, while the Hag can still sell a simple tear-in-my beer country tune better than almost anyone--see "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink."
Haggard also uncorked a steady string of dad jokes, from the old "introducing the band" trick (rather than actually introducing the band to the audience, the Hag simply allows the band members to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with each other) to several cracks about his age--"Youth is the first word," he said before playing "I Wish I Could Be 30 Again." "It's hard to say with these new teeth...but I tuned 'em."
Kristofferson joined in the dad joke fun, too, singing a lovely version of "Nobody Wins" before gruffly adding "George Bush and Dick Cheney were singing this song in the shower together."
(One can only imagine how tortuous it is for young Benny Haggard to sit through this routine every night, but considering he gets to watch his father sing "Silver Wings" on a regular basis, it's hard to feel too sorry for him.)
Closing with the devastating combo of Willie Nelson's "Back to Earth" and Kristofferson's classic "Why Me, Lord," the duo prompted a rousing standing ovation before returning briefly to trade verses on Kristofferson's "Anthem '84"-- a fitting benediction for a night spent worshipping two of country music's finest.
"Shipwrecked in the Eighties"
"I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am"
"Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star"
"Me And Bobby McGee"
"I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink"
"Best Of All Possible Worlds"
"Here Comes That Rainbow Again"
"They're Tearing The Labor Camps Down"
"That's The News"
"Ol' Country Singer"
"Help Me Make It Through The Night"
"Workin' Man Blues"
"I Wish I Could Be 30 Again"
"If I Could Only Fly"
"From Here To Forever"
"If We Make It Through December"
"Jody And The Kid"
"The Fightin' Side Of Me"
"He's A Pilgrim"
"Pretty When It's New"
"Closer To The Bone"
"The Silver Tongued Devil And I"
"Okie From Muskogee"
"Sunday Morning Coming Down"
"Back To Earth"
"Why Me, Lord"
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Personal Bias: I once asked a girl out in college mostly because she said her mother had slept with both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the '70s.
By The Way: Merle Haggard's newest album, I Am What I Am, hit stores on 4/20, a date that hardly seems in keeping with the values championed by the residents of Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA.
Random Note: Lines moved slowly for those leaving Bass Hall as patrons retrieved their walkers and canes, but the people-watching more than made up for the delay.