Naked but for the guitar

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 10:41 08/05/2014

So I went and saw Kris Kristofferson the other night. I was into it - I wanted to see him, but it was also a job. A review. I'd have stumped up for a ticket if I wasn't reviewing - I'm enough of a fan to have wanted to get along. I'm not a huge collector of his material but I do love that debut album so much. The songs. So many great songs. That's what I dig about Kristofferson. That's what got me to his music - the songs, the history around them, the cover versions, the life that informed/informs the songs.

In that sense it was almost perfect seeing him up there, just his own rudimentary guitar and a few rasps across harmonicas. And what's left of that gnarl of a voice.

The setlist is what told the tale.

Just a few songs into the night he drops in Me and Bobby McGee. Anyone else might hope to have that sort of nugget saved for an encore. The same could be said of another half dozen songs at least: Help Me Make It Through The Night, Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again), Duvalier's Dream, Sunday Morning Coming Down, For The Good Times, Just The Other Side of Nowhere, The Silver Tongued Devil and I...

Some of the songs started to sound - a bit - the same, those similar themes, the guitar just softly sketching out a hint of music to support the tale, his voice craggy, gruff, but capable of not only serving the songs but shaping them into something new. The years of experience since he wrote them, coming back to them now as if - in some ways - he is the artist covering them, in some cases these songs are better known for the version someone else recorded.

It wasn't an issue that some of them started to sound the same. The minimalism of it, the way he kept finding new things to say from the same old chords and shapes, the same story ideas, it was almost miraculous.

There aren't a lot of people that can hold you for an hour or more - in this case over two hours - with just their guitar and a bunch of songs. At nearly 78 Kris Kristofferson was brave to stand there alone, the strength coming from those songs as he showed a stoicism but an obvious vulnerability.

Leonard Cohen couldn't do that. He couldn't fingerpick his way through catalogue highlights, he'd have to have his soft-Klezmer backing band.

Bob Dylan doesn't care enough about his fans to do it - and he needs to hide behind his quasi-revivalist group too.

But I imagined, for a moment, the Dylan of 70 or 75 - if it ever could happen - standing there on that stage. Just his guitar and harmonica, back to how he started. And the setlist:  He Was A Friend of Mine, The Times They Are-A Changin', Mama You Been On My Mind, Farewell Angelina, Talkin' New York, Song to Woody, Girl From The North Country, Blowin' In The Wind, A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Don't Think Twice It's Alright, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, My Back Pages, It Ain't Me Babe, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Mr Tambourine Man, It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), It's All Over Now Baby Blue, She Belongs To Me...and on and on it could go.

Imagine it.

I did.

Neil Young could do it - and does do it, in a sense. But so often he plays the material from his as yet unreleased album, he plays what he wants. And fairplay of course. Kris Kristofferson

But what Kris Kristofferson did on Monday night was magical. It was mesmerising. It was beautiful. You couldn't have wanted more from him if you were going along - as you should have been - as a fan of the songs. You got everything you could expect. And a little more.

Here's my review of Kris Kristofferson in Wellington. His NZ tour wrapped in Napier last night, did you see any of his shows?  What did you think?

And who do you think could rival that sort of show? Who's left with the catalogue and the presence - and presence of mind - to honour their own legacy in such a way?

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