Kristofferson makes classics his own again

Kris Kristofferson (shown in Zurich last year) needed only a guitar and harmonica to bring his songs to life Saturday. Kris Kristofferson (shown in Zurich last year) needed only a guitar and harmonica to bring his songs to life Saturday. (STEFFEN SCHMIDT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / March 30, 2009
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Kris Kristofferson's stage setup Saturday night was a reminder of just how little he needs to command a full house. There was a music stand, a wooden stool, and a few feet away an additional acoustic guitar that he would never even play. It was there either for show or backup.

With just a guitar, a harmonica, and a set list, Kristofferson sold out the Wilbur Theatre largely on the expectation that he'd play some of the most revered and evocative songs of the past 40 years. "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," "Me and Bobby McGee," "For the Good Times."

He wrote them, but other people - Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Ray Price, respectively - made them famous. As iconic as those versions were, Kristofferson proved he's the definitive interpreter of his songs, imbuing them with a deep melancholy that suggested he still relates to their down-and-out sentiments.

Time has been good to Kristofferson, who turns 73 in June. As much a movie star as a musician, he's the kind of a guy for whom the expression "silver fox" was coined, and his voice is husky and ragged now in all the right places.

His guitar playing, however, occasionally got away from him, as he acknowledged when he joked about the audience not being able to clap in time with his rhythm. "It's not your fault," he said with a laugh.

The desire to join him in song was understandable. Many of the evening's songs are now standards, but Kristofferson clearly sees them in contemporary contexts. On "The Best of all Possible Worlds," he altered a lyric to stress the number of blacks and poor people locked up in prisons, before commenting on how the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country.

As an aside during "Nobody Wins," he quipped: "George Bush and Dick Cheney were singing this [song] in the shower together." A verse from "In the News," from Kristofferson's 2006 album, "This Old Road," spoke to serious problems ripped from today's headlines: "Burning up the atmosphere and cutting down the trees/ The billion-dollar bombing of a nation on its knees."

Kristofferson was working from a rather unvarnished palette, but sometimes the songs were so austere, they came off as truncated. Perhaps because he was on a tight schedule - Jimmy Fallon was performing at the Wilbur at 10 p.m. - Kristofferson zipped through 26 songs in about an hour and 20 minutes, often with little room to stretch out.

"Help Me Make It Through the Night" was beautiful in its finger-picked simplicity, but also rather light on the late-night desperation it usually conjures. A one-verse taste of "For the Good Times" left you longing for more.

Then again, Kristofferson often spoke volumes in single lines. "My thirsty wanted whiskey/ My hungry needed beans," he sang on "To Beat the Devil," which called for nothing more than what he had: a guitar and a voice.

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON At: the Wilbur Theatre,


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