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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Kris Kristofferson's shining light

"Sunday Morning Coming Down"

As authenticity has become a key quality bandied about on the cable news shows when discussing a presidential candidate’s electability, those seeking the highest office—and those reporting on it—would do well to catch Kris Kristofferson, one singer-songwriter who has always embodied it.

At Saturday night’s sold-out show at City Winery (he also packed the place the next night), Kristofferson once again demonstrated authenticity in every song, and not to knock his solo shows two years ago at the venue, but this time around, backed by his late pal Merle Haggard’s band The Strangers, he was somehow even more impressive.

Maybe the band—which includes Haggard’s sons Ben on lead guitar and Noel on acoustic—required from him a greater degree of involvement. Kristofferson’s solo shows are perfectly fine, but with musicians like The Strangers to play off of and with, he necessarily becomes more active on stage. But he also sings with greater authority, not only on his songs, but a few Haggard classics that both the Haggards and the Strangers’ fiddler Scott Joss sing during the show (all, not surprisingly, sounding like vocal descendants of Hagg). On those songs, Kristofferson ably helped supply what Haggard’s late ex-wife and longtime backup singer Bonnie Owens used to call her emphatic “blurt harmonies” on the first words of the chorus lines.

On his own songs, though, he sounded better than ever in his coarse but gentle singing voice, nailing the notes with the strength and confidence of a man who’s sung them now a good chunk of his near 83 years.

Of course it could be a case of mental muscle memory, as it’s well-known that Kristofferson has for quite some time suffered short-term memory loss from Lyme disease, exacerbated, no doubt, by the many blows to the head from excelling in college contact sports including football and boxing. But he hasn’t forgotten how to perform, and still delivers some of the most poetic and relatable songs ever written with the same sense of commitment and the sensitivity imbued in the words.

He was bound to get a big hand after “Me and Bobby McGee,” which he sang early in the first of two sets. Other predictable crowd faves included “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again),” which closed the first set, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (featuring a beautiful solo from Ben Haggard, having also inherited his father’s guitar talent), “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (everyone sang along unsolicited) and “Why Me,” in which his singing, sparsely accompanied, was simply stunning.

Among high points from the Merle Haggard catalog were “Sing Me Back Home” (after which Kristofferson gave singer Ben Haggard a congratulatory fist pump), and the signature “Okie from Muskogee,” for which Kristofferson added to the joke by intentionally muddling his marijuana verse (“We don’t smoke our draft cards in Muskogee”). That he also heartily sang backup on Haggard’s 1970 patriotic anthem “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” though, was ironically fitting: Kristofferson, who served in the Army and received the Veteran of the Year Award at the 2003 American Veterans Awards ceremony, had earlier dedicated his performance of “Broken Freedom Song,” his song about a downtrodden soldier, to any veterans in the house.

But “Broken Freedom Song” is also about a poor pregnant single woman--as well as the forsaken Savior. And as “Okie” mocks the “beads and Roman sandals” worn by hippies, Kristofferson’s “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” which he sang near the end, extolls them.

Kristofferson’s greatest gift, then, has always been his ability to recognize the worst in humanity while promoting the best. As those same cable news shows were adding their now normalized search for obvious explanations for the latest mass shooting to their ridiculous quest for authenticity, this most humbly authentic singer-songwriter continued his own long-term pursuit of salvation through song, the Silver Tongued Devil always finding the silver lining even in the darkest storm cloud.



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