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Willie Nelson & Kris Kristofferson @ BMO Harris Pavilion, Summerfest

July 29, 2016

Jun. 30, 2016
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Photo credit: Dave Zylstra
The word legendary, in the vernacular, refers to a person, place or thing that has gone before, is well known and often lauded for its achievement or notoriety. In the case of individuals, the word does not necessarily inform or offer commentary on current capabilities or performance.

Just try telling that to Wednesday’s overflow crowd at Summerfest’s BMO Harris Pavilion for the unofficial double-bill of singer/songwriters Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. If there ever was an homage to legendary country artists both living and dead, it was the stage’s opening night act.

It’s fair to say that both artists, officially on the other side of 80 as of Kristofferson’s June 22 birthday, were far from performing at their primes. It’s equally fair to say that the very large crowd, which frequently leapt to its collective feet with the first notes or lyrics of familiar hit songs, didn’t care.

The fans were there to latch on to the legacy and legend of country music’s two remaining living “outlaws.” All things – and limitations of age – considered, they were well rewarded for their devotion and support.

What’s more, both performers wisely called on the help of audience and friends to help them make it through the night’s two-and-one-half hour complimentary sets, not counting the well-timed break for Summerfest’s impressive opening night half-hour fireworks display.

In the case of Kristofferson, the younger and yet frailer appearing of the two who appeared first on stage, that help came in the form of the next generation of country musicians, whom he wisely let carry the weight of his 60-minute performance.

Opening folk duo the Appalachian Murder Bunnies, consisting of Kristofferson’s daughter Kelly and Sammy Hagar’s son Andrew, played one soulful number to get the wheels in motion. Then Kristofferson, clad in black T-shirt and jeans, took the stage with his backup band The Strangers, headed by the late Merle Haggard’s sons Noel and Ben.

Kristofferson left the heavy lifting to the band, which interlaced its own homage to Haggard, who died April 6, and performed a number of songs exceeding those contributed by the singer/songwriter. Kristofferson’s well-traveled, gravelly baritone has lost something with age, but his well-documented bouts with memory loss, now being blamed on Lyme disease, seem to have abated.

Kristofferson soldiered through renditions of a half-dozen of his most popular songs, including “The Silver-Tongued Devil and I,” “Me and Bobbie McGee,” and “Help Me Make It through the Night.” In touching response, the video screens showed a woman bedecked with a blue ribbon holding a large sign that invited the aging artist to “take the ribbon from my hair,” an echo of the later song’s initial stanza, which drew its own audience response.
As strong as the response was for Kristofferson, the audience got even louder when Willie Nelson and an abbreviated Family Band came on shortly after 10 p.m. The Red-headed Stranger, now gone mostly gray, performed 90 minutes of his own favorites and those of other country legends, further sealing the theme of the evening.

Long-standing opening number “Whiskey River” kicked off the evening for Nelson, who appeared in his own version of black t-shirt and jeans, The hits followed in rapid-fire order, including “Still is Still Moving to Me,” “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.”

Nelson’s voice seems to have better weathered time’s ravages compared to Kristofferson’s, who is three years his junior. However, his idiosyncratic phrasing seems to have only become more so, causing his band occasional issues in keeping up with its leader.

The five-member group, which included his sister pianist Bobbie Nelson and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, went from a tightly bound ensemble to seemingly loose and sloppy trying to keep pace. However, everyone’s heart, if not their musical phrasing, was in the right place. The audience was there, too, to help Nelson out sing-along style with the choruses.

Nelson even indulged in a little fan play, donning pre-tied red bandanas as head bands for a song or two, then tossing them off to eager fans in the reserved seating section who craved a little of the singer’s DNA. One man gleefully put on his newly acquired headband, no doubt wearing it home and to bed that night.

Nelson augmented his set with Tom T. Hall’s “Shoeshine Man,” a Hank Williams medley and “Georgia on My Mind,” first made popular by Ray Charles. The homage, it seems, went beyond country standards to embrace classic music of any genre. Kristofferson joined him for the evening closer “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”

It also made clear the evening’s lesson. Legendary performers are mortal, too, as exhibited by Haggard’s passing this year. Catch them in live performance while you can, for we all will soon be on the other side of the sod.

And chances are that Nelson will take Trigger, his well-worn guitar, with him when he goes.


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