Kris Kristofferson Embraced His Own Mortality at Bass Performance Hall
Authenticity and impeccable simplicity have always been Kris Kristofferson's stock-in-trade. On Saturday night in Fort Worth it couldn't have been more apparent, as he performed a couple dozen of his plainly poetic songs in two nearly one hour-long sets at the classically beautiful Bass Performance Hall. It was the evening before the storied songwriter's 78th birthday and he didn't attempt to hide his age. Thankfully, that meant the 2,000 people in attendance witnessed a show few artists are secure enough to proffer.
Attending a Kristofferson show is surely similar to what it must've been like to see John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemmingway read some of their works in a grand hall so many decades ago. After 45 years as a household name in the pop-culture lexicon, Kristofferson has assumed a role he seems to be more comfortable with: storyteller. But this show wasn't one where the stories of each song's origin were discussed in between tunes, as bantering with the crowd wasn't a priority. No, Kristofferson's simply left the storytelling to what lies inside each of his well-crafted songs.
The former college janitor, who became an A-lister in both Nashville and Hollywood, began the night with a voice seemingly in fine form as he operated mainly in a higher tone in the show's initial songs. Opening with a spirited "Shipwrecked in the Eighties," then instantly jumping into "Darby's Castle," Kristofferson's casual charisma soared. His vocal strength grew a touch weaker later on, but such vulnerability and honesty added to the experience tremendously. One isn't expecting to hear a golden-throated crooner or a classical guitar virtuoso at a Kristofferson show, especially these days.
One area where Kristofferson's age or health wasn't an issue was the energy in which he pumped out one song after another. Within the first 30 minutes of the evening, at least half a dozen gems had been offered up. He would end each number with a quick "thank you" before the audience could begin clapping. And often, before the audience finished clapping, he would begin his next song. Even with apparent allergy or sinus issues -- at one point, he joked to the audience that they "paid a lot of money to listen to a guy blow his nose" -- his spirits and energy remained high.
With the opening line "Take the ribbons from your hair," the classic beginning to the 1970 smash-hit "Help Me Make it Through the Night," a song that Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson made famous, Kristofferson began to sing in a lower register that indeed brought out the aged, gruff tone his speaking voice suggests.
Most of the songs that the Brownsville-born military son performed Saturday night began with him singing the opening lyrics as he strummed the opening notes simultaneously. Without standard musical intros, each song became a surprise gift Kristofferson unwrapped as he progressed. The opening lines of 1970 smash-hit, "Help Me Make it Through the Night," saw him begin to sing in a lower register out the aged, gruff tone his speaking voice suggests. Kristofferson than caused a swelling roar to rise to the room's rafter when softly sang, "Busted flat in Baton Rouge/Waiting for a train," the opening lines to the iconic "Me and Bobby McGee," which, of course, another Texas-born artist, Janis Joplin, made famous in 1971.
Songs of faith, spirituality and mortality were very present Saturday night, especially in the show's final hour. After much of the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to an appreciative Kristofferson, 1972's "Jesus Was a Capricorn" opened the second set. Again Kristofferson showcased his visionary simplicity as he hammered home his message of tolerance with the verse, "Most of us hate anything we don't understand."
Assessing and appreciating the parts of life that have passed him by turned many of the songs from Saturday night into deeper ruminations than they might have originally intended to be. Songs such as "The Pilgrim" and 2009's "From Here to Forever," which he wrote for his children, were far more raw, loose and impactful in this setting than they are on-record.
At times, a stray note was plucked or a song's line became slightly jumbled, but Kristofferson sang his heart out. That much was admirable and appreciated, given the way his buddy Willie Nelson talks his way through his shows. The imperfections that accompanied this performance often made for gripping drama.
There was some fun to be had, too. Many stood in applause after he performed the "Sunday Morning Coming Down," perhaps the best song about a hangover in recorded history and one of Johnny Cash's greatest hits. And tunes with lighter thematic fare such as "Silver Tongued Devil" and the hilariously ribald "Sky King," which Kristofferson said he wrote here in Texas, added welcome levity to a night filled with closed-eyed introspection and wistful rolls down memory lane.
The regular set ended with Kristofferson offering his brave, come-to-grips pondering on earthly life through the title track of his latest album, "Feeling Mortal." During that tune, his voice cracked as he projected from his gut and offered up sobering lines such as "God Almighty here I am/Am I where I ought to be?/I've begun to soon descend, like the sun into the sea." In another appreciation of the grace his God has given him as he nears an earthly end, his three song encore included 1995's "Moment of Forever" and ended with a moving, spine-tingling, "Why Me," where he emotively asked, "Help me, Jesus, my soul is in your hand."
With plenty of breath in his lungs for singing and playing the harmonica as he stood for two hours on Saturday night, Kristofferson reflected his past while looking into the future, even if it's not a long one. With his close friends Cash and Waylon Jennings already gone. and Nelson having entered his 80s, Kristofferson is fully accepting that he's likely close to the ending of his story. His songs, however, will enjoy a span that will never expire.