Kris Kristofferson – The Keswick Theatre – Glenside, PA – January 25, 2017
Songwriter. Movie star. Outlaw. Rhodes Scholar. Addict. Singer. Soldier. Character actor. Sex symbol. Penitent. Athlete. Storyteller. Poet. Party Animal. Silver-Tongued Devil. Military brat. Rebel. Highwayman. Janitor. Half of a celebrity couple. Cowboy. Old coot. Legend.
Kris Kristofferson has worn a lot of hats in his eight decades on this mortal coil. However, it is probably agreed though that his greatest skill was that of songwriter. In fact some of his lyrics are worthy of the some of the finest names of the last century – in the ballpark of Dylan, Simon, Cohen, Lennon/McCartney, Nyro, Newman, Nilsson, David, etc.
Kristofferson was never known quite as much as a singer, because his voice was a rough-hewn, lived-in tool that was evocative but far from crystalline perfection. It’s not a coincidence that many of his most iconic songs – “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “For the Good Times” – became big hits when covered by other artists. (Janis Joplin, Sammi Smith, Johnny Cash and Ray Price had the biggest hits with those often-covered songs, in order.)
He is arguably one of the most important voices of country music of the 60s through the 80s. After all, this guy is one of the two surviving members on the Mount Rushmore of the outlaw country movement, with his old friends (and former Highwaymen band mates) Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Now eighty years old, the imperfections in his voice have been hardened by fast living and the creep of time. Not many men his age – or much younger, for that matter – could keep a sold-out theater rapt with just an acoustic guitar, two harmonicas, a slightly ravaged voice and a deep songbook which reaches back about 50 years.
Kristofferson did not talk much between the songs, though he’d occasionally show a quick flash of crotchety wit. “Don’t you love paying lots of money for a ticket to watch an old fart blow his nose?” he said after he had to use a Kleenex between songs. On another song he seemed to forget the final verse, so he just sang out “I’m lost, so I think I’ll just quit,” and abruptly ended the song.
Also, in theory, an hour and a half of a guy strumming on an acoustic guitar with only his harmonica and his ragged vocals to keep things going might get to feel a little “all the same.” Perhaps you could even claim that, musically. However, Kristofferson’s greatest skill as a songwriter has always been as a troubadour, weaving detailed, lovely stories of losers, loneliness, drinking, religion, sex and love.
Perhaps his artful description of the hero of his song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” – which Kristofferson performed with the sublime confidence of a reformed sinner in the middle of this show – describes Kristofferson’s music the best: “He’s a walkin’ contradiction: partly truth and partly fiction.”
Kristofferson recognizes this contradiction, even bringing it to life with a sorrowful version of his psychologically astute look at a human’s duality, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I.” The song chronicles a barroom lothario’s recognition that his best chance to pick a woman up is to hide his humanity and be the expected Casanova; even though he knows that in the end it is not what either needs and dooms them both from any chance of a serious relationship.
Kristofferson can still pull out a passably sexy lover-man croon in a gorgeous breakup ballad “For the Good Times,” making the audience swoon to the thought of a lost love. And despite its slightly 70s sounding title, “Jesus Was a Capricorn” is still stunningly relevant look at hatred and intolerance in today’s horribly divided world, and Kristofferson’s world-weary performance just made it all the more powerful.
He told tragic tales like “Jody and the Kid,” or more upbeat fare like “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.” He celebrated the sacred depths of true love with the drop-dead gorgeous “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” or look at more base relationships in the seductively intimate “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” He could also be quite humorous, like in “To Beat the Devil” when a guy runs into the anti-Christ at a bar and tricks him into buying him drinks without losing his soul.
Stripped down from Janis Joplin’s more histrionic (but still damned fine) cover, “Me and Bobby McGee” returned to its roots as a sad and sweet little tale of two free spirits briefly finding a little love on the open road before inevitably losing it. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, indeed.
However, his particular talent as a subtle chronicler of the everyman may have been shown off the best in one of the most casually devastating songs ever. In “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” Kristofferson inhabits the role of a lonely alcoholic who stumbles out of his home one morning, spying on the happy families and normal life going on around him and feeling completely out of place, trying to fight the urge to climb right back into the bottle.
He closed out the show with the devotional “Why Me?” a sweeping appreciation of all the gifts the good Lord has shared with him. It was a sweet lament that is even more affecting now that Kristofferson is staring down mortality than it was when he originally had a hit with the song in 1973 at the height of his popularity.
Then after a brief intermission (he literally never completely left the stage, just stood over to the side a bit) he came back to encore with a sweet cover of “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” a duet he had originally done with his ex-wife Rita Coolidge. The slightly fatalistic lyrics again took on more power with the life history flashing before the audience’s eyes and memories. The words “Let me go on loving and believing until it’s over, baby,” pretty much sums up Kris Kristofferson’s music and all of our lives.
For one blessed night at the Keswick, the stories never had to end.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 26, 2017.