There are some performers who you just can’t be ambivalent about. Whether it’s the sound of their voice or the subject matter of their songs, there is something about them that makes people either really like them or not like them at all. Sometimes I can have more respect for a performer I dislike entirely than one I’m ambivalent about, because they at least have a quality that causes me to form an opinion about them one way or another.
A singer/songwriter who falls into the category of people either loving or leaving him is Kris Kristofferson. I’ve found that there is usually two reasons that people get their backs up over Kristofferson, his voice or the material he performs. As I don’t fall into either of those two camps I can’t pretend to understand the reasons behind either feeling, except to say that Mr. Kristofferson is probably the only person, save perhaps Johnny Cash, who can get away with singing the particular type of material that he writes.
A great many of Mr. Kristofferson’s songs could easily slip across the border from a genuine expression of emotion to saccharine sentimentality in the hands of a lesser performer. There is just something about his delivery and the genuine quality to his voice that allows him the license to sing or write a lyric which another person either couldn’t get away with or would mangle and cheapen.
Perhaps it is his almost monotone and laconic vocal expression, with no attempts to embellish the songs with unneeded accents or pyrotechnics, which keeps them honest and real. When he sings his material they appear to be an expression of his own life and the losses or wins that he has experienced. Songs like “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” are statements of fact and need, not self-pitying moans of “woe is me I’m so hard done by”.
Big concert venues have never served this type of performer’s needs very well, because the intimacy that is required for a rapport to be developed with the audience is not possible. In the past, for me anyway, it has been far more satisfying to listen to a CD of Kristofferson’s then feel frustrated by the inadequate experience of watching him perform in some large concert format.
I say in the past because New West Records has just released a series of DVDs that are re masters from early broadcasts of the Public Broadcasting Station’s television show Austin City Limits. Since the early 1970’s Austin City Limits has presented one hour concerts every Sunday evening of the best that Country, Southern Rock, Texas Blues, and American Roots music has to offer in an intimate setting.
Unlike films of concerts, these shows have been produced and directed specifically with a television audience in mind, so they are far more intimate then anything else recorded at the time, or even since. As a means of watching a performer like Kris Kristofferson this type of format is ideal.
In spite of the fact that this concert is from 1981 and the technology for filming was far less sophisticated then now, the camera work is every bit as good as anything from today. In some ways the absence of hand held cameras is a plus, because you don’t get millions of cut away shots as the director bounces around from camera to camera and you feel like a jumping bean on speed.
Of course it’s more then a one-camera static shot of the band dead on with no wavering in focus. There are sufficient cameras to provide plenty of diversity in the focus, and to centre out individuals as they do their leads. The close ups were clean and crisp enough for my wife to be able to drool over Kristofferson’s blue eyes, so that ought to tell you they were doing a fine job that night.
As for the concert itself, it is Kristofferson in his prime. By 1981 he’d been sober for a few years so his voice had become mellow again and was still rich and strong. He and his band at the time, including Billy Swan and Glen Clark, were tight musically but loose enough with each other to be having fun on stage and enjoying the songs.
They did the songs you’d expect them to do: “Silver Tongued Devil”, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “The Pilgrim”, and of course “Me and Bobby McGee”. What was interesting was to hear some of those old favourites done in ways different from what I was used to.
Anyone who’s heard the original version of “Bobby McGee” will remember his spoken intro to the effect of “if this song sounds Country that’s because it is”. Well he must have been doing a tribute to Janis Joplin that night, seeing as he was in Texas that would be appropriate, because he does a rocking version of the song that sounds great.
While none of the other songs have been so radically changed, they all sound fresh, not like they’re songs that Kristofferson had been playing for years to that point. The ’70s had been a turbulent period in his life what with beginning a movie career, his marriage to Rita Coolidge ending, and his struggles with the bottle. It almost looks like coming back to his music is a return to a time when things weren’t quite as complicated.
He certainly looks and acts like a man whose quite happy in his own skin. This comes through especially in the authority and assurance of his performance. This is the work of a man who is at the top of his game.
The idea of packaging old episodes of Austin City Limits is a brilliant one, and a quick glance through the New West catalogue shows that the first batch of concerts they’ve released are a good cross section of the variety of performers that were featured on that show. The only quibble I have with the production is the decision to re-master the sound only in DTS 5.1 and High Definition PCM, and not regular surround sound. Not having a system set up for either one of those puts you at a slight disadvantage. I’m not sure whether it was the original quality of the sound, or the fact that my system wasn’t compatible to those formats, but the sound was somewhat muddy in places.
But that’s just a minor quibble, and aside from that this is a great concert disc. If you are a fan of Kris Kristofferson and felt that your collection has lacked a concert movie to round it out, this is the one for you.