Tonight, Los Tigres del Norte played a two-and-a-half hour set in Santa Rosa. If that sounds like a long time, consider that most of their concerts are 3 or 4 hours long; once, in 2009, the band played for seven hours straight.
But the band, who attracted a sellout crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, wisely maximized those two and a half hours. They played all of their biggest hits, projected clips from throughout their career on a giant screen, had the crowd on their feet and, at concert’s end, took dozens of photos with excited fans at the edge of the stage while still playing and not missing a note.
Another thing: I’d heard that in concert, Los Tigres del Norte compose their setlists on the spot, dictated by scraps of paper handed to the band by audience members. Each scrap of paper contains a song request, and the band generally gets around to playing nearly all of them.
Sure enough, that was the case tonight at the Wells Fargo Center, where a constant stream of requests were handed to the band members, often in mid-song. I lost count of how many of these requests came flooding to the stage. Between songs, the band members read from the scraps of paper, not only song titles but special dedications, birthday wishes, stories of people’s homeland and more. Call it an analog version of live-Tweeting. It definitely connected the crowd.
And then, the songs. “Golpes en el Corazon” brought a giant sing-along before the band even had a chance to start the first verse; the heartbreaking “La Jaula de Oro” caused an eruption at the first three notes on the accordion. “Somos Mas Americanos,” “Contraband y Tración,” “La Puerta Negra”—they just kept coming and coming. By the end, while the crowd clustered the stage for a veritable love-fest, it was hard to imagine that they wouldn’t return to Santa Rosa, sometime, for another marathon set.
Have you ever seen Weird Al? No? Well, let me try to explain. He plays for two hours. He plays about 65 songs. He has about 20 costume changes. He assumes two dozen personas, and shows just as many funny fake interview clips between songs. He’s nonstop, and it’s nuts, and his crowd is nuts, and then he plays some songs about Yoda and it’s all over, and like any good fast-paced comedy show, it’s hard to remember what just happened.
Here’s what I can reconstruct.
When I walk in to the show, there’s a guy who’s 6’5″ in sweatpants, a headband and a red “Jews 4 Bacon” T-shirt. This is a good representative example of the typical Weird Al fan who has arrived here tonight to pay their respects to the master. I follow the Jews 4 Bacon guy to my seat, the lights go out, and Weird Al starts a polka medley of the following songs:
You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
Day ‘n’ Nite
Need You Now
I Kissed a Girl
Blame It (on the Alcohol)
Break Your Heart
The medley comes back around to “Poker Face,” the song ends, the lights go out, people go nuts. The lights blink back on just in time to see Weird Al bonk his face on the microphone with a huge “WhhHHHAhaOoompPP!,” and then recovering by shouting “HELLO SANTA ROSA!!”
There’s a joke about a drum solo, and then the video screen shows a interview with Eminem where Eminem keeps saying “You know what I’m sayin’?” and Weird Al keeps losing his patience in increasingly aggravated fashion, and this goes on and on, and the crowd loves it, and then some cheerleaders come out on stage to the opening strains of “Smells Like Nirvana.” I’m impressed that Weird Al plays the whole song on guitar left-handed, but then attention to detail is his specialty—surely he knows that Kurt Cobain played left-handed. He also gargles the guitar solo into the microphone with some mystery liquid and throws the red keg cup and its contents out on the crowd, and they go wild.
“TMZ” is a Taylor Swift parody, “Party in the C.I.A.” is Miley Cyrus, Jesus, what else? It all goes by so fast, and honestly, some of the best songs are his own, like “Skipper Dan,” the sad tale of a failed actor who was once “the next Olivier” but is now working the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland, reciting the same crappy schtick about the wiggling hippo ears 34 times a day. (“I research everything that I do as much as I possibly can before I even start writing,” he says in this interview about the song. See, attention to detail!)
Somewhere in there is perhaps the show’s highlight: “Wanna B Ur Lovr,” with Weird Al in a red-and-black leopard print suit hopping off the stage and grinding up on audience members, like, legs up on the seat, while singing lines like “My love for you’s like diarrhea, I just can’t hold it in” and something about chewing on your butt, maybe? It’s insane. He launches into a food medley, with “Whatever You Like” and “Nothin’ on You” and “Eye of the Tiger” and “La Bamba” and “Stand” and I forget what else, and then they all come out dressed like the Doors.
Doing Jim Morrison is hard, but Weird Al nails it, and their bassist is sitting back at the keyboards because the Doors had no bassist (ATTENTION TO DETAIL!) and the song is about Craigslist and the personal ads and annoying complaints people lodge on Craigslist. Weird Al wins a place in the heart of Santa Rosa by addressing a diatribe during the bridge: “An open letter to the snotty barista at Bad Ass Coffee on Mark West Springs Road,” and again, attention to detail, place goes nuts, it’s totally cool and uncool at the same time, which I guess sums up the whole show, actually.
The hits roll out: “Perform This Way,” “eBay,” “Canadian Idiot,” “White and Nerdy,” “Money for Nothing / Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Fat,” with the famous fat costume, and it’s hard to figure out if he’s making the fat people in the audience feel better or worse about themselves, but I’m guessing better, because Weird Al is all about making everyone feel better about themselves no matter how weird or quirky or idiosyncratic or different they may be. Even if they’re 6’5″ and wearing sweatpants and a headband and a shirt that says “Jews 4 Bacon.” Weird Al is there for that man, and that man is not giving up on Weird Al, because like Homer Simpson says: “He who is tired of Weird Al is tired of life.”
There’s an encore, with songs about Star Wars, a.k.a. the Spiritual Advisory Board of the disenfranchised. There’s an amazing acapella thing that I can’t begin to describe (thank you YouTube, start at 3:40), and the whole thing comes roaring back in with “Yoda,” and the accordion is king, and people are swaying in their own ridiculous joy, and UHF is a great movie, and Jessica Simpson is dumb, and no one thought about the state of the world for two hours, and Weird Al yells “Thank you Santa Rosa!” and I believe that he actually cares. And that’s what a Weird Al show is like.
(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
I’ll admit I haven’t been a hardcore Lucinda Williams fan. Her alt-country sound has been mildly attractive to me, enough that I own a few of her CDs, had at least listened to all of the others and had actually paid to see her in my own hometown 6 or 7 years ago. My interest was mostly due to a close female friend of mine who has had her share of ups and downs in life, and who for quite a while saw Lucinda’s music as the soundtrack to her own difficult journey on the planet. As such, I paid a bit more than average attention to Williams’ songwriting, and while some of it was very raw and direct and spot-on, some of it was almost annoying in its simplicity and repetitiveness. Her tendency to slur her vocals and deliver same in the occasional monotone didn’t grab me either.
Lucinda’s stage presence as a performer can be lacking—even borderline non-existent at times. The one previous time I’d seen her live was at the end of nearly a year of nonstop touring; the stage was about the last place she seemed to want to be that night. She did her best Van Morrison-esque impression, keeping her cowboy hat pulled low over her eyes and barely addressing the audience at all. And yes, alcohol may have been involved. Musically, it was a decent enough show, but not enough to turn me into a dedicated fan.
All that changed last Friday night. I had purchased a couple of tickets the day they went on sale (ninth row and reasonably priced, these days anyway, at $45.00) and had the aforementioned female friend/fan as my date. And even though I hadn’t been very impressed in two of Lucinda’s recent releases, West and Little Honey, I bought Blessed for a preview of what we’d be hearing. What struck me immediately with the album was the quality of the musicianship. Williams has the stature to have surrounded herself with some pretty good players through the years, but this just felt different somehow. With some real anticipation, I hoped it would translate to the live show.
When the 8 PM show still hadn’t started at 8:30 and the natives were getting restless enough to start rhythmically clapping, whistling and calling out Lucinda’s name, it was hard to remain upbeat. The house wasn’t full, and I tried to embrace the possibility that they were waiting for just a few more bodies to fill just a few more seats. She finally emerged with the three-piece band, mumbled, “Hello everybody,” and went straight into “Can’t Let Go.”
For the next hour and fifty minutes, the four musicians (Lucinda included) were simply brilliant. Props as well to the sound crew—this was one of the most crisp, clear and clean shows I have heard at the Wells Fargo Center in a long time. When you get that kind of sound right out of the gate, you can focus completely on what the performers are giving you. And what they gave to the night, interestingly enough, was more of a rock and roll feel, infusing a different kind of power and energy into the setlist than what I had expected.
Lucinda’s drummer, Butch Norton, immediately took charge. He was there. He converted his drums from a percussive device to an actual instrument, seemingly using every piece at every moment. At times, he inspired personal recollections of Animal from The Muppet Show band and the great Keith Moon. And though he was all over his kit, he was in complete control without overshadowing the rest of the band—loud and forceful in accentuating tunes like “Buttercup” and “I Changed The Locks,” and effortlessly holding up the quiet, introspective songs like “Born To Be Loved” and “Blessed,” both from the new album.
The other half of the rhythm section, David Sutton, was the perfect complement to Norton. While providing most of the backup vocal work, he alternated between a standup bass, a hollow body electric bass and a Fender Precision to provide a melodic bottom end that formed a real connection with Norton’s drum work. He ran the gamut from a hard rock sound to intricate fretwork to quiet single-note accentuations. He especially shone on “Get Right With God,” the encore’s closer.
Lead guitarist Blake Mills was simply amazing. He brought something different to each tune, from screaming, shredding leads to seamless slidework to finger picking staccato to light and buoyant accentuation of Williams’ vocals. He elevated music that was already brilliant to the level of stunning—every song would have made a highlight reel. A collection of guitars that I finally stopped counting covered most of the sound spectrum. At just 24, he plays well beyond his years.
Oh yeah, Lucinda. Sure, she still has those awkward-but-endearing moves onstage. And I’m not sure when this practice first started, but she now employs a music stand with a notebook that contains all the words to her songs at the ready, referring to it quite often. (C’mon, how many times prior to this show has she sung “Lake Charles” or “Pineola” or “Drunken Angel”?) But tonight, I’ll gladly give her that and whatever else she wants or needs to prop her up. Lucinda was in stellar form vocally. Her voice was strong and clear, she was both forceful and demure, she gave us pain and joy, she made us stop and think, she had us nodding our heads in common experience and deep feeling. She didn’t marble-mouth her lyrics, she didn’t fall into a lazy growl, she simply sang ever so beautifully in that slightly rough-around-the-edges Louisiana drawl which makes everything that comes out of her mouth so flat-out real. Again, the sound was brilliant, letting the audience easily fuse with the woman who has been included in the short list of the greatest songwriters of all time.
Tonight, for me, it all came together perfectly. No doubt I’m late to the party, but now I get Lucinda Williams. The strength and quality of her backing musicians (interestingly enough, all from California), the power of the real-life stories she crafts lyrically, the quality and emotion in her voice—it all felt so deeply, penetratingly real that it was almost scary someone could do it so well.
Tonight’s show was magic. I’m a fan.
(Previously by Bob Meline: Bonnie Raitt at Sonoma Jazz +)
I talked with jazz pianist Jason Moran a couple weeks ago for a feature on the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and I gotta say, the guy’s really smart and down-to-earth—and a hell of a piano player. His soon-to-be-released album Ten is easily the best, most natural-sounding album he’s made, and he plays Sunday afternoon at Rodney Strong Vineyards with Bill Frisell. I urge you to check it out. How many jazz pianists can you name who are planning to record a duets album with Ghostface, MF Doom and Jay Electronica?
For those who missed out on Esperanza Spalding’s sold-out show last night at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, or who can’t make it to the Charlie Haden / Ravi Coltrane show tonight, be advised that Craig Handy is playing for free in the Hotel Healdsburg lobby tonight from 9-midnight with “special guests.” I’ve seen Craig Handy both chewed out by Sue Mingus for showing up late to a Mingus Big Band show and suffering behind an irascible Freddie Hubbard, so be nice to the guy, okay?
It’s not free, but this year’s Festival del Sole features a performance at Daryl Sattui’s crazy $30 million, 121,000–sq.-ft. Castello di Amorosa by 16-year-old Canadian singing sensation Nikki Yanofsky. You might have heard of Yanofsky through her involvement with the nutsy-cuckoo “We Are The World”-like re-recording of K’naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” to benefit Haiti, or for singing a laid-back version of the Canadian national anthem for the 2010 Olympics. But you should really just go to her MySpace page, ignore the goofy press photos that look like Blossom, and listen to her insane scat-scattered version of “I Got Rhythm.” Damn!
The Wells Fargo Center has announced their upcoming season, including the return of both Wynton Marsalis and Tony Bennett. Marsalis is playing with the full Lincoln Center Orchestra, and you’ve got time to plan your evening—the show’s next February, in 2011! Bennett slips in a little sooner, on September 21, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at 83, the guy hasn’t lost an iota of his voice, talent, or showbiz class. I met him briefly at the then-Luther Burbank Center after a show about ten years ago; he was flanked by Mafia-looking bodyguards and incredibly kind to me, a then-young, googley-eyed fan. Go see him if, and while, you can.
This Just In: The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has donated $500,000 to the Wells Fargo Center in order to renovate and remodel the performing arts center’s lobby. No, this doesn’t mean they’re planning on building a casino on the site. It just means that the lobby will be named the Lytton Rancheria Grand Lobby, which for a half million seems like a bargain, don’t you think?
On to you, press release:
In addition to seismic upgrades, some highlights of the lobby project include dimmable architectural and theatrical lighting to replace the chandeliers, acoustic and visual improvements to the walls and ceilings, new floor treatments and carpeting, new stainless steel cable railings, first floor men’s restroom renovation with improved accessibility and ultra low flow fixtures, and 8 to 12 new plasma televisions to simulcast performances and events from the theater into the lobby and to be used for organizational messaging.
Organizational messaging! The new lobby—artist’s rendering above—should be completed by the end of the summer. None of the center’s planned shows or events will be disrupted. Work on the new space starts today with the removal of the lobby’s large, much-maligned chandeliers. And for that particular bit of sad news, I shed a tear.
Ode to the Chandeliers
Poor, poor chandeliers
I loved you so
Gigantic and wrought-iron
You oversaw church services
You illuminated everything
Red wine in tiny cups
Synthetic fiber in grandpa’s toupee
The sea of black clothing when Morrissey played
They claim you are ugly
But you were there when I was 5
And you were there when I was 34
And today they tear you down and take you away
Don’t let the bastards win, chandeliers
Only I sense your true inner beauty
Come live at my house
You are as big as my house
But I know we can make it work, chandeliers
Jazz lovers can pick their jaws off the floor with the announcement of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival (June 4–13), which delivers a rich lineup of vibrant jazz talent. Charlie Haden leads a group with Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen; Jason Moran plays with Bill Frisell; and red-hot sensation Esperanza Spalding returns. Other names include George Cables, Dafnis Prieto, Pete Apfelbaum and more.
This year’s Sonoma Jazz+ Festival (May 21–23) features headliners Crosby, Stills & Nash, Earth, Wind & Fire and Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes. Openers Lizz Wright, Poncho Sanchez and the Neville Brothers also appear. Hope for jazz springs obligatory when Costello will doubtless sing Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare.” . . . The Kate Wolf Festival (June 25–27) has Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Greg Brown, Little Feat, David Grisman, the Waifs and many more up at Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville. . . . The Harmony Festival (June 11–13) has confirmed some initial performers, including Steel Pulse, Galactic, Rebelution, Slightly Stoopid, Dweezil Zappa, Jai Uttal, the Jazz Mafia, the Expendables and Fishbone. A “very special headliner” will be announced this week.
While the Santa Rosa Symphony hosts Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (May 8–10), the Wells Fargo Center bounces back from recent personnel shakeups with John Prine (April 11), David Spade (May 20), the Barenaked Ladies (May 25) and the still-fantastic Smokey Robinson (May 28). The cozy Napa Valley Opera House brings Elvis Costello playing a solo evening (April 8th) as well as jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny (April 25) performing with an ensemble of animatronic instruments controlled by Metheny’s guitar. Crazy!
The Sonoma County Blues Festival, long a staple of the Sonoma County Fair, moves to the Earle Baum Center (July 31), which already has headliners Dave Alvin and James McMurtry confirmed for its EarleFest in September. . . . Resurrected local favorites Victims Family play a free in-store to celebrate the re-release of White Bread Blues at the Last Record Store for Record Store Day (April 17). . . . Fret-tapping phenomenon Kaki King plays the Mystic Theatre (May 20) and Joan Jett rides the popularity wave of The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart by playing at the Sonoma-Marin Fair (June 25).
John Prine, the lovable songwriter who deserves every laurel thrown at his feet, is coming back to Santa Rosa to play the Wells Fargo Center on April 11, 2010.
Presale tickets are available now by clicking here, although take note of the strange rules if you pursue this option: “Seats will be assigned at random on the day of the show, and the location of your seats will not be known until tickets are picked up at will call.”
For those who want the peace of mind of knowing where they’re sitting, tickets to the general public go on sale this Friday, Jan. 29, at noon.
The last time John Prine played in Santa Rosa, it was September 8, 2001. The twin towers still stood, as did the feeling of optimism and confidence in the economy. The venue was still called the Luther Burbank Center. We had the luxury of being able to laugh at his songs then; something tells me those same songs might cause a tinge of sadness now. He played for over two hours that night, just song after brilliant song, ending with an encore of “Paradise” joined onstage by Todd Snider. “Lake Marie” brought the house down, and he made beautiful chestnuts like “Souvenirs,” “Sam Stone” and “You Got Gold” sound shiny and new after all these years. I talked to him afterwards; he was all rosy cheeks, in a great mood, and told me the crowd was as great and responsive as any he’d played for. It was a hell of a show.
If you’ve never seen John Prine, you’re missing out on a genuine national treasure. The standing-room deal is $19.50, with tickets going up to $39.50 and $49.50 for seats. It’ll sell out easily. For more info., call 707.546.3600 or visit the Wells Fargo Center site.
Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.
The rare treat of seeing Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last night in their first-ever concert together wasn’t one easily passed up. Not by the sold-out crowd; not by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who ambled in with trademark cowboy hat and cane; and not by—brace yourselves, folks—Cher, who sat in the sixth row.
What in the world was Cher doing at a Merle Haggard / Kris Kristofferson show in Santa Rosa? We may never know. What’s for sure is that she, along with fans that capped the night with an epic five-minute standing ovation, witnessed two bona fide heroes of country music give a performance at turns tender, humorous, poignant, insightful, and above all, intimate.
Let’s just hope Cher wasn’t the woman who yelled out for “Me & Bobby McGee” a few songs after Kristofferson had already played it.
The 1,400-capacity Wells Fargo Center has a historic knack for achieving a living room-like atmosphere for acoustic music. They did it with the Landmine Free World concert in 1999 with Steve Earle, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Patti Griffith and Bruce Cockburn; they did it with the two Elvis Costello / Steve Nieve concerts they’ve hosted; they did it with the Texas songwriter night in 2005 with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely; and they did it last night by closing the stage curtain and presenting Haggard and Kristofferson front and center.
When Merle Haggard played at the Center last year, electric, he drew a shitkickin’, Copenhagen-dippin’, cheap perfume-wearin’ crowd. This tour was different. Instead of a parking lot scene with greasy dudes in Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts smoking joints, it welcomed wine tour limousines and sixty-somethings gingerly stepping out of Oldsmobiles. The performance itself suited the new audience: pensive, slow, and mortal.
“If there’s a Hall of Fame for heroes in heaven, this man’s definitely on his way,” said Kristofferson, introducing Haggard after opening the show with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties.” Added Haggard, fresh from successful lung cancer surgery: “Between the two of us there’s about 150 years of experience here.”
Those expecting a “Storytellers”-type show, with Haggard and Kristofferson sitting down with acoustic guitars and swapping tales about the Army (Kristofferson), prison (Haggard), Louisiana oil rigs (Kristofferson) or stealing Buck Owens’ wife (Haggard) got something far better: a run-down of the two giants’ greatest songs backed by an elegant, semi-acoustic version of Haggard’s band, the Strangers. (Turns out Haggard must have won the battle.) As for storytelling, most of the night’s commentary got squeezed between lines of the songs themselves.
Kristofferson, during “Nobody Wins”: “George Bush and Dick Cheney were singin’ this song in the shower together.”
Haggard, during “Sing Me Back Home”: “This goes out to all the ex-convicts. It’s every convict’s dream to be an ex-convict.”
Kristofferson, during “Best of All Possible Worlds”: “Did you know that here in the USA, the land of the free, we got more people behind bars than any other country on the planet? That’s right, boy. We’re #1.”
Haggard, during “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”: “I feel like a stripper without a G-string!”
Yes, the two were very funny together, but also incredibly warm, and wise. It’s not uncommon for former hellraisers entering life’s twilight, particularly in country music, to embrace a life-lesson empathy. When I spoke with Kristofferson last year, he elaborated: “There is a freedom in accepting the fact that there is a difference at this end of the road,” he told me. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends and heroes, like Johnny Cash and Waylon, I’ve watched ‘em slip and fall. And be gone. And it’s gonna happen to all of us. So I think the acceptance of it gives you a freedom to be less critical of yourself when you make mistakes, and to not be so hard on others.”
Warmth like that was conveyed on stage last night so often, it sometimes outperformed the fantastic songs. Check the set list below—there were nearly 30 of ‘em. The selections played off each other cleverly, as Haggard ran with the torch of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and answered, “Are the Good Times Really Over?” Kristofferson pleaded to help him make it through the night; Haggard, up next, just wanted to make it through December.
Yes, it was a considerable union. To see Kristofferson sing backups on Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and a reworked verse in “Okie From Muskogee,” or to have Haggard play his ranchero-style nylon guitar solos on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night” was truly exciting. By the end, after the two had finished “Why Me Lord,” the standing ovation seemed endless. No one could believe it when five minutes later, the house lights came up.
(Afterward, Cher was quickly escorted behind velvet ropes into a tinted-window SUV. Kristofferson obliged a waiting crowd of about 50 with autographs and gracious conversation, and Haggard stayed put on his bus until it rumbled, slowly lurched forward through the parking lot, and breezed into Highway 101 for the next town.)
Photos by Elizabeth Seward.
Shipwrecked in the Eighties
Me & Bobby McGee
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
Folsom Prison Blues
Best of All Possible Worlds
If I Could Only Fly
Here Comes That Rainbow Again
I Wish I Could Be 30 Again
Help Me Make It Through The Night
If We Make It Through December
Okie From Muskogee
Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down
Back to Earth
Jody and the Kid
The Silver-Tongued Devil and I
Sing Me Back Home
He’s a Pilgrim
Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star
For the Good Times
Are the Good Times Really Over
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down
Today I Started Loving You Again
Why Me Lord
“After you’ve had a few hit records,” explained Johnny Mathis at the Wells Fargo Center last night, “you can just about do anything you want. And I wanted to record some of my mother’s favorite songs.”
His mother’s favorite songs, it turns out, were Christmas songs, and the rest is history—Johnny Mathis has put out nine Christmas albums since. Though for a concert billed as “A Johnny Mathis Christmas,” the set was actually a welcome 50/50 blend of seasonal classics and standards, touching on Mathis’ biggest hits and even snaking down very interesting territory—an electric-guitar version of the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New,” for example, or a raucous street-party “Brazil,” favela whistles and all.
Most noticeably, Johnny Mathis is a living miracle of preservation. At 73, he looks and sounds almost exactly like he did fifty years ago, with the same high-toned boyish singing and a surprisingly fit face and figure. He’s also not just going through the motions. That he’s still willing to take chances and go out of his comfort zone is one of the reasons he’s persevered as one of the last in a literally dying breed. (Oh, 960 KABL, how missed you are.)
Mathis opened with “Winter Wonderland,” the lead-off tune from his first and most famous Christmas album, and then went pretty quickly into “It’s Not For Me To Say,” sparking one of many sighs of recognition. The audience thrilled at the immediately recognizable piano intro to “Chances Are,” and during “Misty,” when he nailed the final octave-high falsetto in the third verse, you could hear an entire theater of 1,400 audibly gasp.
Sure, they laughed at “Gina,” but for the most part, Mathis—in a blue sweater and pants and white sneakers—held everyone rapt in his role as interpreter. “Stranger in Paradise,” “Secret Love” and “A Felicidade” are all songs associated with other singers, but Mathis did them right, just as he delivered a touching “Christmastime is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas after giving an introductory nod to Charles Schulz.
Yes, he did “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and “Silver Bells,” and a bunch of other Christmas songs. He also did “The Twelfth of Never” with a solo guitar backing, and “99 Miles From L.A.,” and somewhere near the end of it all—after an intermission during which a know-your-audience comedian came out and told Viagra jokes—Mathis sang eight bars completely acapella, a 73-year-old man alone and unaccompanied in the spotlight, just totally ruling it. Miracles never cease.