Kris Kristofferson, Royal Albert Hall, London
Be Your Own Pet, Audio, Brighton
He's a rather craggy icon these days, but the eyes still have it
Sunday 06 April 2008
Two eyes, blue as swimming pools that made you want to dive into them. These, as much as anything he ever did behind a microphone, were Kris Kristofferson's selling points. To locate them now, you'd need to search among an abseiler's landscape of ravines and ridges.
The face may be craggy. But the charisma that seduced Joplin, Streisand and Coolidge, made him a guilty-pleasure "Bit of Rough" to a generation of female cinema-goers, and also charmed Johnny Cash, retains its potency. When Kristofferson, uninvited, landed a helicopter on Cash's lawn to hand him a demo tape, the older man chose to mentor and champion him rather than reach for his shotgun.
If Kristofferson is a foremost face on country music's Mount Rushmore, it's because its more iconic faces have crumbled away. Along with Willie Nelson, he's the Highwayman standing, and he's back on that highway in a big, sleek, Beat the Street bus to prove that his umpteenth album, This Old Road, is at least as good as ... well, his umpth. And, of course, to tell a few tall tales.
In my late teens, as a friend and I sat strumming our guitars on an empty beach, an old man walked out of the sea after a swim and told us about his time in the Spanish Civil War. Rather than reminisce about his fight against the fascists, he preferred to recall the lodgings where "I shagged the mother, and the daughter too!"
I think of him when I see Kristofferson, now 71, and who also likes a story; and if he doesn't tell one before the song, he tells one during it. "Sunday Morning Comin' Down" has an inbuilt gag: "Then I fumbled through my closet for my clothes/And found my cleanest dirty shirt ... it's the one I'm wearin'." It still raises a laugh.
He's a raconteur who, like my marine mercenary, is on the right side. An opponent of wars from Vietnam to Iraq, a Sandinista supporter and Barack backer, he's a relative red in a genre better known for its rednecks. And such lines as "We've seen the ones who killed the ones with vision/Cold-blooded murder right before your eyes" just prove that he's one of the Sixties generation who didn't get depoliticised with age. That and his cragginess make for a marketable image.
Look at the video for This Old Road's title track in which he strides across disused railroad tracks in Big Sky Country, guitar slung over his shoulder. It's as much a pose as anything from a glossier pop star, but fetishists of "real" music lap it up. As, indeed, they're lapping up this solo acoustic tour in which KK, in proudly battered cowboy boots and a harmonica brace, belts out songs more often known for their covers, not least "Me And Bobby McGee", which frequently tops Favourite Country Song of All Time polls. The flipside, "Help Me Make It Through the Night", even when stripped down by its writer, is cheese, whichever way you slice it.
Young enough to be Kristofferson's grandchildren are Nashville four-piece Be Your Own Pet. Led by the blonde-ponytailed Jemima Pearl, they're just out of their teens, meaning that the Heineken the singer swigs would be illegal back home. But in a teen-punk scene where their peers are the neutered likes of Paramore, Be Your Own Pet are refreshingly feral. It's an act, of course: only an illusion of abandon, but it helps that Jemima Pearl has a voice which sounds as if it comes not from her slight frame but the body of Beth Ditto.
It's a combination that inspires a melee of limb-thrashing. By the end, the mirror ball on Audio's ceiling has been kicked around so badly that it's now ... well, just a ball.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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