On a night where cool autumn temperatures might have made hot chocolate a popular concession offering, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson provided the sonic equivalent of a warm blanket to a crowd of true believers Friday (10/7) at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater.
While both artists’ names appeared on the marquee, this was clearly Haggard’s show and Haggard’s crowd. Kristofferson fronted nine songs of the 24-song set, commanding many of the more contemplative moments of the night with his richly detailed, classic story-songs, but for the most part, all eyes were on Haggard to see which way the ship would steer next.
Kristofferson opened the show solo with a heartfelt reading of “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” which he dedicated to America’s vets. From there, Haggard and his band took the stage, hitting the ground running with “Pancho and Lefty.”
Haggard’s excellent touring band, The Strangers, currently features his son Ben on guitar, and the younger Haggard displayed impressive chops, shining particularly brightly on the Haggard standard “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Working Man Blues,” which was revived for Haggard’s strong new album.
Kristofferson’s memorable and largely serious lyrical turns in the likes of “From Here To Forever” and “Hear Comes That Rainbow Again” proved an ideal foil to Haggard’s wry and rambunctious offerings.
In a recent interview, Kristofferson spoke of the natural fit of the blended show, crediting the camaraderie of the musicians and familiarity of the material with the fact that they eschew a formal written setlist for a general “play it by ear” approach.
For the crowd at the Greek, that approach seemingly worked very well, with more than a few shouted requests turning up throughout the show, whether by coincidence or not.
Ultimately, Haggard’s side of the show traveled through plenty of fruitful terrain, from the stately “Pancho and Lefty” through a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which proved a galloping party bus of a performance.
The version of “Workin’ Man Blues” that appears on his new “Working In Tennessee” album with Willie Nelson and Ben Haggard helping on vocals, picked up some steam along the way, with a bouncier backline rhythm that reaches back to his 1969 version, which was anchored by the great James Burton on guitar. The result pulsed with a slinky “CC Rider” vibe.
The evening capped with a pair of singalongs, Haggard’s signature “Okie From Muskogee” and Kristofferson’s “Why Me,” which featured some powerful harmony vocals from Haggard.
Shipwrecked In The Eighties (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Poncho and Lefty
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Me and Bobby McGee (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down
Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Folsom Prison Blues
Are the Good Times Really Over
Here Comes That Rainbow Again (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Workin’ Man Blues
Sing Me Back Home (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
From Here to Forever (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
The Farmer’s Daughter
The Pilgrim (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Working in Tennessee
Take Me Back to Tulsa
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kris Kristofferson vocals)
Okie From Muskogee
Why Me (Kris Kristofferson vocals)