It might sound trite, but not all bourbons are created equal. And to make this metaphor apply, a quick explanation is in order. A bottom-shelf whiskey wouldn’t work because it is too harsh and biting due to lack of aging and refinement. And something like Basil Hayden goes down a little too smoothly and doesn’t have the lingering effect of a well-crafted song. For a bourbon that mirrors last night’s show, Bulleit or Knob Creek would suffice, but considering the extraordinary repertoire of the two singer-songwriters and, especially, their fatherly charm, Gentleman Jack is the best comparison.
The first sip from the rocks glass of an evening came with Kris Kristofferson taking the stage by himself to sing “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” which he dedicated to the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. After the tune, Kristofferson introduced Merle Haggard and The Strangers, saying, “This was the good part.” He could have said that over and over again throughout the evening (Is the second sip or the middle of the bottle the best part of Gentleman Jack?). The two men fronted the stage along with the five-piece band as the flood lights came on and they were welcomed with a standing ovation.
What followed were generous pours of classic sing-alongs, most of the songs recognized and applauded for right from the opening notes. The two veterans were buzzing with youthful gaiety mixed with a raspy, weathered sensibility.
After Kirstofferson’s opening song, Haggard took center stage and sang “Pancho and Lefty,” “Silver Wings” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” Then it was Kristofferson’s turn to take the mic with “Me and Bobby McGee.” Throughout the evening, the two continued to take turns every few songs. While one sang, the other would noodle along on guitar, rarely breaking out because there was no need with The Strangers backing the pair. They continued to run through “Help Me Make it Through the Night” (Kristofferson), “Workin’ Man Blues” (Haggard), the touching (body-tingling-like-a-bourbon-buzz) ballad “Here Comes that Rainbow Again” (Kristofferson) and “Folsom Prison Blues” (Haggard). When one of the two would deliver an especially touching line, a cowboy-hat-wearing woman nearby spoke for everyone when she repeatedly exclaimed, “It’s true!"
As the performers warmed up, more stage banter commenced, but, overall, the set was a bit shy of the charming storytelling I was hoping for. Haggard starting chatting about the haircut he'd received in town earlier that day, which led to him saying that both of the gentlemen wrote most of their classic songs in their 20s, and here they were singing them in their 40s (badababoom). Then he proceeded to sing a new tune about youth, which somewhat proved that his songs have certainly aged with time and the newer material is a bit sour and harsh (like Ten High) to the ear.
But things quickly perked back up with classics like “Okie from Muskogee” (Haggard with pre-song banter), “Mama Tried” (Haggard) and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Kristofferson). In total, the legends and backing band played 25 songs, although they ended promptly at the hour-and-a-half mark. At that point, the tour manager took the stage and announced that the two would not be signing autographs because of the long haul to Northern California. That’s fine, but when the flood lights kicked up and The Strangers played exit music, it seemed an abrupt ending. The adoring fans who had cheered so passionately filtered out of the auditorium with nary a desire for an encore -- odd. It wasn’t enough to spoil the bourbon buzz that Haggard and Kristofferson had exuded all evening, but it would have been swell to have a nightcap.