Merle Haggard & Kris Kristofferson – April 1 ’09 – Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa

While living in New York City I was lucky enough to see George Jones play Carnegie Hall in a venue the Possum last played 44 years prior on a bill that included Johnny Cash and Mother Maybelle Carter. On that crisp Halloween evening Jones headlined and the opener was a solo acoustic performance by the relative youngster Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson said of the opening spot “I can’t believe I get to open for George Jones.” That same wide-eyed, reverential innocence was also there as member of the country music “supergroup” The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kristofferson), he said of  being included in the lineup that he felt like a kid won the lottery.

That same, now 72 year-old, wide-eyed kid was again struck by awe as Wednesday night as he shared that stage with a man only one year his elder – the Bakersfield Sound legend Merle Haggard. This opening performance of a three-night tour was held at ,the Wells Fargo Center in the sleepy bedroom community of Santa Rosa, CA. 50 or so miles due North on US 101. Loaded up into my favoriteZipcar Toyota truck I hit the rolling hills specked with grazing cows on a beautiful sunny day. First stop was Russian River brewery in Santa Rosa to partake of my favorite kick-you-in-the-head IPA -Pliney the Elder. The -night started off well.

The Wells Fargo Center is a nice subdued type of seated theatre where the tony locals come to relive their glory with classic rock bands or catch some culture from the local symphony. I was surprised by the age of the crowd which skewed into the 60’s , but the lack of body searches was a nice change from the big city shows I’ve become accustomed to.

Later as I was standing near the touring bus hoping to catch a glimpse of Merle or Kris and shooting the shot with a mother and daughter that each brought their guitars to be signed I saw what surely signaled this as a great event. I saw Cher. The Gypsy herself  had come to catch the show and was sneaking in the stage door after a brief visit on the bus. My dream to utter the words “So, Cher and I were at this event, and…” can finally be fulfilled.

Clad in black with worn boots,  Kristofferson had just finished Shipwrecked in the Eighties and was introducing Hag when the man his-self walked out on stage. No need for formality here son –  and broke into the small-town living lament Big City, Hag’s voice was strong but still that of a 72 year old man that had recently undergone surgery to have part of his lung removed. There was still too much onryness and pride in the grizzled elder statesmen to allow any trace of frailty, though the adoring audience would have forgiven any if shown.

As a pioneer of the electric Bakersfield sound Hag has worked with a band his whole career and the publicized “acrostic set” between these musicians was not quite what it seemed to be. “I feel like an old stripper without a G-string,” said Merle Haggard before kicking off the intro to “Back to Earth.” Merle was not quite naked as he had brought along a stripped down version of his Strangers touring band which included his 16 year-old son Ben who played as proficiently as someone ten years his elder.

The pattern ran one song Kristofferson, two songs Haggard. Which sat just fine with the sold-out crowd and covered a lot of ground in the nearly two-hour long performance. Big City, Silver Wings, Me & Bobby McGee – each artist graciously relegating the floor to the other for a wealth of music. Collaborations were more democratic when other performers songs were performed – Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and Jimmie Roger’s T.B. Blues, which givenHaggard’s health was colored with even more poignancy.

Like two old friends that had seen over 100 years of country music history between them they traded witty good-natured jibs, winged a play-list of dozens of classics, screwed up, brushed it off and performed like the seasoned professionals they were. The Okie From Muskogee and the Liberal ex-U.S. Army captain and helicopter pilot . He became a helicopter pilot, like a country music détente for the sake of the song and in honor of the contributions each have made.

Sing Me Back Home, Mama Tried, The Bottle Let Me Down, Today I Started Loving You Again, Jody and the Kid, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I,SundayMornin’ Comin’ Down…it’s daunting as they keep coming at you like a crash course in country music history. Kristofferson has had the acoustic lone man show on the road for a couple of years now and performed like he was at ease and for all Hag’s pretense at being out of his element, he warmed up and eventually was just as home just doing what they both do best. Making great, timeless music. When they leave this Earth, we are likely not to see their kind again.

As is Haggard’s tradition there was no encore to the slight disappointment of the crowd. To gripe after such a banquet was served  would be to risk gluttony. Like the rest of the evening Kristofferson was more than happy to follow his lead backstage.

Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Big City
Silver Wings
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Mama Tried
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Rainbow Stew
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Nobody Wins
T.B. Blues
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
The Pilgrim, Chapter 33
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord


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