Kris Kristofferson
at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts,
Worcester, Mass. (4 May 2011)

When I heard that Kris Kristofferson was scheduled to appear nearby, my first thought was of the sexy photograph of him and Barbra Streisand on the A Star is Born album cover. The movie came out when we were in college (1976), and we played the soundtrack record over and over again in our dorm rooms. "Evergreen" was the ballad of the day. But when I looked through my old vinyl stash recently, I couldn't seem to find that copy. I guess it had belonged to one of my roommates. Darn.

My second thought was that I had to go to this concert. After all, none of us is getting any younger. Kris himself will be turning 75 this summer. I thought it was time for us to be breathing the same air for a few hours. Hearing the classic work of an astute singer-songwriter would be worthwhile, too.

The Hanover Theatre is one of those great old venues that is finding rebirth in the 21st century. It took $31 million and a few years to restore it to its 1920s glamour and to install modern state-of-the-art amenities as well. Now the hall features cushy seats, sparkling chandeliers, marbleized columns and a color palette of beiges and golds, offset by the occasional outline in crimson. It's the kind of place where newcomers stand and turn around in amazement, with their eyes turned upward and their mouths hanging open. It is a appetizer for the eyes, before any feast arrives for the ears.

Kris was a one-man show tonight. Right away we could see that the entertainment would be just him, his guitar, and his occasional harmonica. Even so, he provided 90 straight minutes of music with 28 songs, a few comments and asides, and several opportunities for reminiscing and for singing along. Kris was dressed in a black tunic and slacks, and he stood to play and sing for the duration. Between selections, he took sporadic swallows of water to strengthen his wavering vocal cords. He is a veteran performer, indeed.

He began with "Shipwrecked in the Eighties," which he dedicated to those individuals currently serving in the military, and followed it with "Darby's Castle." Then with the opening line of "Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train," the audience cheered to the unexpected quick appearance of "Me & Bobby McGee." We're so accustomed to hearing Janis Joplin's version on classic rock radio -- the one that at times morphs into a screeching frenzy -- that it's a true pleasure to hear the song from the writer himself, just the way he wrote it. Now it was a country saunter, and Bobby was a woman, not a man. Kris paid homage to his friend and one-time flame by concluding, "feeling good was good enough for me -- and Janis -- / Good enough for me and Bobby McGee." We roared. Certainly he knew that most of us were thinking of her version and were marveling at the differences in the approaches, even if his had come first.

"Best of All Possible Worlds" and "Here Comes That Rainbow Again" were next, followed by another very familiar tune, "Help Me Make It Through the Night." We quietly murmured along. Here was a practiced storyteller, weaving his tales with simple melodies and intricate rhymes, talking about love and lust, scamps and scoundrels, and relationships both failed and restored. In other words, he was dealing with the universal fabric of everyday life. Kris made it all interesting.

Next selections included "Casey's Last Ride," "Nobody Wins," "From Here to Forever" and "Your Time's Coming." Then Kris talked about a present-day project: a movie called Bloodworth, which would be released later this month, with him as a leading man. We got to hear the song he penned for the film, "You Don't Tell Me What to Do." Kris has been providing songs for movie soundtracks for decades, and he shows no signs of letting up on that front.

"Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" hit the pop charts in 1971, and it was still a crowd-pleaser tonight. Songs to follow included "Stranger," "Come Sundown," "Just the Other Side of Nowhere," "Jody & the Kid," "The Pilgrim" and "How to Beat the Devil." With the message, "You can spread your wings," the song "The Promise" was one that Kris wanted to dedicate "to my kids and their mothers." Nervous giggles reverberated throughout the theater, for at last count, the performer had eight of the former and three of the latter. "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "The Silver-Tongued Devil" led into the classic, "For the Good Times." Unbelievably, it was 40 years ago that Ray Price recorded that winning hit. Many members of the audience automatically mouthed the words, no matter how long it had been since they had last heard them. The main musical set concluded with "Love is the Way."

Of course, we couldn't allow Mr. Kristofferson to leave us just yet. He walked back onto the stage to serve us a three-song encore, starting with "Moment of Forever" and "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends." The last song of the evening was his own country-gospel hit from the summer of 1973, "Why Me?" Many people joined in on the chorus, and it echoed with peaceful reverence throughout the hall: "Lord help me, Jesus, I've wasted it / So help me Jesus, I know what I am. / But now that I know that I needed you so / Help me Jesus, my soul's in your hands." It was a fitting benediction to bestow onto us, as we headed out into the chilly and rainy spring night.

With no additional musicians to provide instrumental fillers, Kris had pared each song down to its basic verses and choruses. His vocal range was not what it once was, and some sustained notes were a bit shaky. Yet the stars of the performance were his musicianship and his writing prowess. Every song used chords that any campfire strummer could recognize, focusing on common progressions in the key signatures of D, A or G. Those simple foundations were enhanced by the lyrical stories told by an expert rhymer. My favorite word picture came in "The Pilgrim," with the depiction of the memorable main character:

He's a poet, he's a picker, he's a prophet, he's a pusher,
He's a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he's stoned,
He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
Taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

Tonight Kris ended each song with a polite "thank you." More than once, individual voices from the hall responded with, "No, thank you, Kris!"" His avid fans had known every tune. Mere appreciators recognized enough of them to slowly bob their heads in time or to even sing along with the man who wrote them all. It was a wonderful experience to witness.

Once upon a time, young Texan Kris Kristofferson studied literature in Oxford, England, on a Rhodes scholarship. He also served in the military as a helicopter pilot. When he returned to the States in the mid-1960s, he was faced with a decision. He could pursue an uncertain career in music and songwriting, or he could take the steady job that was offered to him: to teach English at West Point. Wouldn't his life -- and our musical world -- be drastically different today if he had chosen the latter?

If you missed Kris Kristofferson this time around, you can get a sense of his legacy by finding a copy of the CD, Songs of Kristofferson. It's a "greatest hits" compilation that includes many of the songs we heard on this one special evening in Worcester. Play it and imagine that you're in an historic city theatre, singing along with your seatmates, breathing the same air as a musical legend.

by Corinne H. Smith
28 May 2011

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