Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson at Mystic Lake Casino, 2/27/11

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Photos by Nikki Miller
Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson
February 27, 2011
Mystic Lake Casino

What can I say. This was really, really cool.

That seems like it needn't even be said, but it's about the truest statement I can make about Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson's "acoustic" performance to a sold-out crowd Sunday night at Mystic Lake Casino, one of only a handful of their dates sharing the stage this year. Really, really cool. Like, dumbfoundingly cool.

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First off - and this also probably goes without saying - Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson are, well, really cool. One's the son of an Okie raised up near the oilfields and migrant camps of the greater Bakersfield area, and also raised up on a live performance by Johnny Cash at San Quentin, where he was at the time incarcerated. The other's a Rhodes scholar, a military brat turned military man, an accomplished athlete and dreamy movie star who's written really good songs for everyone and I mean everyone. Both are unarguably two of the greatest living songwriters in American history. Cool, right?

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I walked into their 7 o'clock performance knowing that yes, I was about to, you know, have an encounter with greatness, and that it would be "cool." The thought of seeing them for the first time, a thought that a month earlier had filled my every thought with so much excitement, so much of a nannernannerbooboo attitude toward friends who hadn't grabbed tickets before they'd sold out, was initially so cool that it had become almost passé. "Yeah, so I'm gonna get to see two giants of country on the same night, on the same stage. What of it? Yawn. Stretch. Yeah, I'm cool."

So what was it about their performance that left me so at a loss for words that I can say little more than that it was really, really cool?

The sound, mixed low and with a band comprised of musicians who knew how to approach their instruments delicately, with subtlety (and a drummer robbed of his kick drum), provided for an intimate, club-like feel that truly showcased the sheer, raw talent onstage.

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The energy was high. Haggard, Kristofferson and company were all smiles, all chuckles, all positive attitude, all shared amusements and anecdotes between songs without ever treading into the territory of overdone stage banter. They projected a feeling that they are a couple guys who truly enjoy what they're doing still after all these years (Haggard at 73, Kristofferson a year older).

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Haggard's guitar playing was as adept and nuanced as ever - beautiful, and beautifully-suited to the gentle performance the band turned in Sunday night. His voice sounded as clear and emotive as it ever has, and Kristofferson's - especially while suffering a cold, as he was - was the same uniquely craggy voice we've come to expect. In all these respects, the two men did not show their age. But in listening to their amazing repertoire, the polish and confidence with which it was presented, it's not easy to forget that they've collectively got nearly a century of legendary songwriting and performances under their belts.

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Kristofferson bounded on to the stage just after 7, the sparkling lights of the Mystic curtained backdrop twinkling behind him as his own twinkling eyes - and doesn't he have just the greatest eyes, folks? - gazed upon the front rows of his audience, front-of-house lights turned up momentarily so folks could stand and welcome him with their applause.

After dedicating his song "Shipwrecked in the Eighties" to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kristofferson introduced Haggard as being "right up there shoulder to shoulder with Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, a living legend." Haggard and band joined him onstage, and this set off a one hour, forty minute set with the two men taking turns performing their biggest hits, as well as a couple off Haggard's newest album I Am What I Am (I like Popeye, too, Merle).

Seeing these two legends a mere 25 miles from my home, 25 feet from where I sat and 5 feet from one another wasn't just cool, it was phenomenal. It was moving, and it was awe-inspiring. Their amazing rapport and incredible ease made it all the more sweet.

Critic's bias: Dude. As if I'd give these guys a bad review. I'd sooner cut my wrists. My friends would have my throats, and I doubt it would have a happy ending like that time I gave Brooks & Dunn a shitty review.
The crowd:Oh, the usual. Casino regulars in the expensive seats, and I reckon the youngsters were hiding up in the cheap seats. Thus the lack of hoot 'n hollerin' from the front rows when Merle would sing about joints and coke.
Overheard in the crowd: Right. Who'd have the cojones to shout anything at these two guys? I take that back - I think I heard someone shout a request for "Okie from Muskogee." As if he wouldn't play that one. Come on, dude.
Random text message dump: From me to my mother, bragging after my boyfriend Alex, who my family thinks looks like country singer Blake Shelton, who is betrothed to country singer Miranda Lambert, told me he thought Kristofferson was looking straight at us during the show. Hey, a couple nerds can dream, can't they?
Me: Alex put his arm around me, and then Kris Kristofferson smiled at us. It was during one of his ballads. 2nd row.
Mom: No way
Me: Way. I guess he kept looking at Alex, especially when he'd fuck something up. I totally missed it. My eyesight isn't so good, so I thought I was imagining it.
Mom: He thought Blake was in the audience and was intimidated.
Me: Hahahahahahahahahaha
Mom: Miranda was in the back.
Me: I was sitting on her.
Mom: Omg get off her.
For more photos: See the full slideshow here.

Set List: Lead vocalist in parentheses
Shipwrecked in the Eighties (Kris)
Misery and Gin (Merle)
I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink (Merle)
California Blues (Yodel No. 4) (Merle)
The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Kris)
Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again) (Kris)
White Line Fever (Merle)
Mama Tried (Merle)
Today I Started Loving You Again (Merle)
Here Comes That Rainbow Again (Kris)
They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down (Merle)
Kern River (Merle)
Help Me Make It Through the Night (Kris)
Pretty When It's New (Merle)
The Silver Tongued Devil and I (Kris)
Darby's Castle (Kris)
The Way I Am (Merle)
Running Kind (Merle)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kris)
If We Make It Through December (Merle)
Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) (Merle)
The Fightin' Side of Me (Merle)
From Here to Forever (Kris)
Okie From Muskogee (Merle)
Sunday Morning Coming Down (Kris)
Why Me (Merle singing Kris)
I Am What I Am (Merle)
Encore: None, but a reprise of "Okie From Muskogee" from the band.


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1 comments
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jules
jules

The sound was great, the set list too - but that room sucks the life out of anything. We saw Merle there solo a few years ago - same problem. I wish we could see him in a more natural habitat.

We saw Kris at Pantages a few years ago and it was one of the most raucous, moving and generally kick-a@@ shows I've seen in Mpls - which is usually WAY too well behaved for its own good.

I pray if they do this again they book the Ordway or State. Merle was right - sobriety sucks for a honky tonk.

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