Watching 76-year-old Kris Kristofferson live is like seeing a living, breathing bit of American history. Yeah, that’s a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the shortest distance to the truth.
It’s all there. The hot, sexy beginning, filled with promise and invention. The middle period, clogged with excess, silliness and loss of purpose. And finally, the realisation that the best days may already be past, but the struggle goes on to redefine, reinvent and perhaps become relevant once again.
Kristofferson took the stage in Copenhagen’s Falkoner Salen at promptly 9pm on Saturday. A Texas gentleman does not keep his guests waiting. Approaching his eighth decade, Kristofferson remains razor-thin, classically handsome and radiates the kind of presence that only years and miles can bring.
He wasted no time in giving the packed house what they came for. The classics. ‘Darby’s Castle’, his song about an older man who became obsessed with the palace he built for his young wife only to find her in one of its many bedrooms with another man seemed less like a 1970s Nashville creation than it did an ancient folk song from time out of mind.
Playing most of the night alone, Kristofferson’s plain-spoken voice and simple guitar playing stripped every song to its bare essence. These are sturdy songs, constructed on timeless song forms that echo the Irish and Scottish traditions that the best American folk music is built on. Countless shitty versions by countless tone-deaf bar bands haven’t yet managed to kill the brilliance of ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’ or ‘Me and Bobby McGee’.
Make no mistake; Kristofferson is not a virtuoso musician. Your Uncle Mel with six months of lessons under his belt is probably a technically more proficient guitarist, but no one comes to a Kristofferson show expecting flash guitar solos; it is the songs and the man that matter.
Kristofferson’s aging voice actually serves his canon better than did his youthful warbling. On his early records, when he actually attempted to sing in the conventional country sense while awash in corny Nashville-style arrangements, the results were mixed at best. The years and miles have revealed his true voice. A song like ‘Lovin’ Her Was Easier Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again’ becomes even more powerful when sung unaccompanied by a man who has lived long enough to make that claim with authority.
The show was mercifully free of the songs from the period of Kristofferson’s career when he was more busy making bad films than he was concentrating on his songcraft. The only time a few of those popped up was during the section of the show where daughter Kelly Kristofferson joined him to sing harmony and hold, but never really play a banjo. She has a great voice, and brought a sparkle to her dad’s eye, but all in all her contribution was slight. This was the one point in the show where the musicianship not rising above the holiday camp father/daughter talent show level really bogged things down.
The mostly mid-to-slow tempo of Kristofferson’s catalogue seemed to confuse that part of a typical Copenhagen crowd that is bound and determined to clap along and turn every song into a Dubliner’s rave up, no matter the pace of the original tune. To his credit, Kristofferson never allowed the audience to alter his staid delivery, except when subtly slowed down to discourage the rabble.
When he appeared on the scene in Nashville in the 1960s, Kristofferson scared the establishment to death. His songs that unabashedly acknowledged that people had sex when they weren’t married, sometimes smoked dope and were often hung over on Sunday morning may seem tame now, but they were a breath of honesty in a land of bouffant hairdos and sequined cowboy suits. His anti-Vietnam stance and radical politics caused one tradition-bound country star to sneer, “Great, now Nashville has its very own hippie.”
The hard living, fire breathing leftist is a Nashville icon and a grandfather now. He doesn’t speak much on stage, preferring to let the songs tell his story. His best spoken moments were when, struggling with a cold, he looked out at the crowd and deadpanned, “Y’all paid a lot of money to watch an old fart blow his nose”, and at the end of his classic break up ballad, ‘Nobody Wins’, when he paused and said, “Well, somebody won … Obama won … so the whole world won.” There is still some grit in the old hippie after all.
After 90 minutes, it was plain to see that he was winding down, but the crowd had been so rapt and Kristofferson was so moved by the response that he did not want to leave the stage.
He called Kelly out for a final version of his drunkard’s hymn ‘Why Me Lord?’
Even the most secular heart in the place was moved by the old rounder singing,
“Lord help me Jesus, I’ve wasted it so, help me Jesus, I know what I am.”
There is a scene in a truly bad film called 'Songwriter' that he made in the 1980’s in which Kristofferson’s character climbs disheveled from the hotel bed, looks at the mirror without taking off his sleep mask and says,
“You good looking son of a bitch, don’t you ever die.”
Last night, a room full of people shared that sentiment.