Merle Haggard & the Strangers with Kris Kristofferson
Thursday, March 10, 2011
The Music Hall
When you see a legend for the first time -- say, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones -- the tendency is to measure them against their best material, at their highest watermark. After all, it's often hard to put things in the proper context when an artist has been making music longer than you've been alive.
Unfortunately, it's easy to have your expectations built up by material put out 30 years ago and then find that those expectations don't apply when it dawns on you that there was a lot of time between then and now. That grappling for perspective was up front and center last night. Not just for me -- or other members of the audience -- but for the artists as well. Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard have been firmly planted in the American music landscape for more than 40 years. Of course, a few things have changed in those long years.
The odd mix of fans took to their seats as the lights dimmed and a solo Kris Kristofferson took to the stage, performing "Shipwrecked in the '80s." He then began to introduce Haggard and the Strangers, placing Haggard among the parthenon of great American songwriters. An audience member interrupted him shouting, "You! You!"
"No, we're not even in the same ballpark," Kristofferson politely clarified (even though he most definitely is). Haggard and company then broke into "Silver Wings," amid wild catcalls and cries of "love you, Merle."
The duo would trade tunes throughout the remainder of the evening, each showcasing his considerable talent. Haggard's tones were clear and spot-on, and his guitar skills were as sharp as ever. He no longer sounded like the kind of guy who is itching to put a swift, hard boot to the crotch of every flag-burning longhair, but more of the commanding elder who can invoke respect by way of age and rank. Kristofferson, who was fighting some sort of cold, did his best to belt out his finely crafted lyrics. The rasp underscored the poignancy of such greats as "Nobody Wins" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down." There was very little instrumental improvisation over the course of the evening as the band went through the respective catalogs. The only deviation from either songbook came late in the show, with a brief detour to classic swing country. Merle traded in his guitar for a fiddle so the ensemble could properly perform "Take Me Back to Tulsa." Ultimately, the set was cut slightly short, which I assume was due to the strain on Kristofferson's voice. At one point, Kristofferson stopped to cough. "Sounds like I'm dying, don't it?" he joked.
An anthem to the night was Haggard's rendition of "White Line Fever." As he sang I wonder what makes a man keep pushing on / what makes me keep on humming this old highway song, the guy behind me started crying openly. It was that moving, and ostensibly autobiographical.
Prefacing "Okie From Muskogee," Merle talked about his wife legally growing pot and explained, "I feel a little differently since I wrote this song." Thus, Kris added a special verse to the super hit (no pun intended) along the lines of, "We don't smoke our draft cards in Muskogee. We don't shoot up marijuana. We get drunk like God wants us to."
As he wielded his guitar for the last few songs, Haggard told the crowd, "It's kind of hard for an old man to do these things, but I did them for you anyway." Bands, artists, musicians come and go. Fans come and go. But the ones who come and stay -- the ones whose work supersedes a popular album or song here and there, the ones whose very lives become entwined with the process of it all, the ones who endure -- well, they reach a point where the idea of expectation cannot and should not touch them. As Merle sang earlier in the night, they find that unnameable thing that keeps them pushing on, humming that highway song.
Critic's Bias: I have nearly played out my cassette of Merle Haggard's Greatest Hits Vol. 2.
Critic's Notebook: [In reference to the crowd] "Visions of America ... bikers, cowboys, small-town folk, rockabilly kids, metal people ... cowboy hats of every persuasion."
Overheard in the Crowd: "That's the real deal up there right now!"
Rough Set List:
Shipwrecked in the '80s (Kris)
Silver Wings (Merle)
Going Where The Lonely Go (Merle)
The Fightin' Side of Me (Merle)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kris)
Just The Other Side of No Where (Kris)
White Line Fever (Merle)
Heaven Was A Drink of Wine (Merle)
Nobody Wins (Kris)
Back to Earth (Merle)
Kern River (Merle)
Mamma Tried (Merle)
Help Me Make It Through The Night (Kris)
Working Man's Blues (Merle)
Loving Her Was Easier (Kris)
I'm a Lonesome Fugitive (Merle)
Folsom Prison Blues (Merle)
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kris)
Okie From Muskogee (Merle)
Take Me Back to Tulsa (Ensemble)
Why Me (Ensemble)
Pancho and Lefty (Kris + Merle)