Merle Haggard & Kris Kristofferson
October 1, 2011
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Better than: Seeing Neil Young after he released Greendale, that's for sure.
A man dressed in an official Hardly Strictly shirt walks out to say that the biggest set of the day will start in about eight minutes. All right, he doesn't call it that. But at this festival, with Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson about to share the stage...
He takes a beat to let the initial applause from the mere mention of their names slow down. This man is about to offer an additional piece of information he hopes will keep the buzz going. "Merle's got a new album coming out..."
Shit. This sentiment is typically concert death.
There are certain truths to keep in mind when seeing a living legend. The set will sound great because the backing band will be killer. Young, talented musicians don't say no when approached by Haggard, or Dylan, or Neil Young, or whoever. Lead vocals will be rough around the edges but recognizable, enough so you can lose yourself in the aura of said legend. (When Kristofferson opened the set with a solo tune, "Shipwrecked In The 80s," I couldn't help but think it sounded a bit like a South Park parody. Holy Torrr-edo).
But the insertion of a new album into a set usually threatens to ruin everyone's experience.
There's a reason that the scene for this was absolute bedlam. It would've easily been the largest crowd of the day if they played on a stage with the capacity for it. The Merle/Kris performance appeared to be the great unifier of all HSB attendees. The silver haired, elder cowboy-hat demographic, identified at performances by Robyn Hitchcock or Gillian Welch, danced like no one was watching. Aside them, younger fans in tight black jeans and denim jackets shared their flasks before eventually congregating in front of A.A. Bondy. Legends achieve this status because their music spans decades, defies genres and speaks to people across experiences or musical preferences. I wouldn't be caught dead at a modern country set, but as a colleague noted, "there's no sign of a Toby Keith shirt in sight."
Merle and Kris have clearly been in this situation before. Sure, they played off Haggard's new album, Working In Tennessee. But they limited that to only the title track -- which was hokey but unsurprisingly sounded great live. The duo knew exactly what everyone wanted. Their set spanned their own iconic tunes, with the classics of others interspersed: "Pancho & Lefty," to me a Willie Nelson tune but to others a Townes Van Zandt classic, "Me and Bobby McGee" was like Janis Joplin gracing the park 50 years before, "Folsom Prison Blues" as a Johnny Cash tribute. It was already the only set I witnessed all day where the crowd stood the entire time. And that was before the duo dedicated "Okie in Muskogee" near the end to "the marijuana capital of the world."
There were other great moments throughout the day. The Wronglers started the day off with some traditional bluegrass (who needs a drumset?) and allowed Warren Hellman to get the standing ovation he deserves. Robyn Hitchcock played what would've been the set of the day -- he was joined by Gillian Welch and David Rawlins nearly the entire time, and the setlist spanned his massive discography before ending with a Grateful Dead nod, "Candyman." A.A. Bondy played a typically underhyped set at the smallest stage of the event with the smallest crowd, but showed how strong its brand of ambient rock can be (Do yourself a favor and listen to its newest album before the year-end lists forget to mention it). Even Hugh Laurie delighted with a set full of New Orleans-style jazz and pseudo-gospel, and how often can you say an actor-turned-musician works out well?
But the reason a festival like this exists is for a set like Merle and Kris. Two legends who need this pedestal to be placed upon so old diehards and younger fans just wanting a glimpse can come together to worship. Ten minutes before their set, I panicked and struggled to think how I would contextualize the disappointment that would be listening to Working In Tennessee for an hour-and-a-half after battling through this crowd for position. Not seconds after they took their final bow, I gladly took a swig of some neighbor's flask in celebration of being so wrong.
Highlights: Besides Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, Robyn Hitchcock truly did have the best set of the day. He still sounds like it's the middle of the '70s, and his philosophies speak just as true today.
Also: You have to like a festival where you can have juiceboxes being finished to your left as mason jars are being worked to your right.
Overheard: Some guy during Hugh Laurie's set, discussing how he can't find other musicians who can "sonically communicate" on his level while performing live. He revealed his genre of music later in the conversation: modern ragtime, classic feel with contemporary lyrics. Save it for Joplin, buddy.