Live: Without Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Family Carry On at Koka Booth | Music
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Friday, May 27, 2016

Live: Without Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Family Carry On at Koka Booth

Posted by on Fri, May 27, 2016 at 5:02 PM

click to enlarge Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson - PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
  • Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson
Willie Nelson & Family, Kris Kristofferson with Ben Haggard, Noel Haggard & The Strangers
Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Sunday, May 22, 2016

In early April, I called my mother and invited her to join me in mid-May to see Willie Nelson play at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre. “Sure! Who else is playing?” she asked, perhaps spoiled by Alison Krauss & Union Station providing stellar support when Nelson passed through the same venue two years ago.

Hearing my reply of Merle Haggard, she bluntly replied, “Oh. I thought he was dead.” I assured her that Haggard would be there, recent poor health notwithstanding. But it was just a matter of days until the country legend actually did pass. Mom, like usual, turned out to be right.

Sunday night, our date finally arrived. Filling the huge hole left in the bill by Merle’s death, Kris Kristofferson opened alongside Merle’s sons Ben and Noel Haggard, backed by The Strangers—the late Haggard’s backing band. For my mom, Kristofferson’s appearance was bittersweet; it seems her high school crush had somehow aged in the intervening forty-odd years. I was more focused on his voice, which—especially early in the set—was, well, rather haggard. The hour-long show followed a revue format, in which Kristofferson and each of the Haggard sons took turns on lead vocals, sprinkling some of Kristofferson’s best-known songs with plenty of Merle classics.

Having joined The Strangers on lead guitar at age fifteen—nearly a decade ago now—Ben, Merle’s youngest son, did an admirable job of filling his father’s role on those tunes, injecting them with youthful energy and recounting his dad’s wishes for him to carry on with The Strangers. Meanwhile, Noel—almost thirty years Ben’s senior—lent his rich baritone to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” sounding every bit like a man who’d lived through plenty of the song’s broken-hearted nights. By the time Kristofferson led off “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” his voice had warmed up considerably, containing just the right amount of weariness for his sighing hit.

The crowd responded with a standing ovation. Ben thanked everyone for coming to celebrate his father’s music. Kristofferson wiped away tears. The set closed on an upbeat note, sandwiching Kristofferson’s gospel number “Why Me” between Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever” and a spirited singalong of “Okie from Muskogee.”

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAN SCHRAM
  • Photo by Dan Schram
The emotional tribute to Merle carried over into Willie Nelson’s headlining set in a surprising way. Sure, Nelson may appear to be as weathered as his trusty guitar Trigger, but as a performer, he seems to be drinking from—or smoking something out of—the fountain of youth. Almost four years older than Haggard, Nelson carried on Sunday night as if he could do so forever—and it’d be easy to convince yourself of just that, had it not been for the too-fresh reminder of Merle’s mortality.

Across an hour and fifteen minutes, Nelson barreled through more than two dozen songs with hardly a pause, ripping off nimble runs on Trigger, perhaps none more impressive than on a cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” Following along to whichever song title Nelson shouted out, The Family provided rocksteady rhythms, rousing harmonica solos, and barrelhouse piano fills. Willie remained the star, even when flanked by the backing vocals of fellow Highwayman Kristofferson. His voice sounded clear as a bell on timeless ballads like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Always On My Mind.”

Nelson seemed somehow ageless, as if defying what I’d told my mom a couple hours earlier during Kristofferson’s set—“You know we’re all getting older, mom.”

Kris Kristofferson with Ben Haggard and Noel Haggard & The Strangers setlist:
Shipwrecked in the Eighties (Kristofferson on lead vocals, duo performance with Scott Joss)
The Running Kind (Ben Haggard on lead vocals)
Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine (Ben Haggard on lead vocals)
Help Me Make It Through The Night (Kristofferson on lead vocals)
Me and Bobby McGee (Kristofferson on lead vocals)
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink (Noel Haggard on lead vocals)
What Am I Gonna Do (With The Rest Of My Life) (Ben Haggard on lead vocals)
The Pilgrim, Chapter 33 (Kristofferson on lead vocals)
Working Man Blues (Ben & Noel Haggard on lead vocals)
Honky Tonk Night Time Man -> Folsom Prison Blues (Noel Haggard on lead vocals)
Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down (Kristofferson on lead vocals)
Ramblin’ Fever (Ben Haggard on lead vocals)
Why Me (Kristofferson on lead vocals)
Okie From Muskogee (Ben & Noel Haggard on lead vocals)

Willie Nelson & The Family setlist:
Whiskey River
Still Is Still Moving To Me
Beer For My Horses
Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys
It’s All Going To Pot
Good Hearted Woman
Funny How Time Slips Away -> Crazy -> Night Life -> Listen To The Blues
Down Yonder
Me & Paul
If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time
Nuages
Shoeshine Man
Georgia On My Mind
Jambalaya (On The Bayou)
Hey Good Lookin’
Move It On Over
On The Road Again
Always On My Mind
Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die (with Kris Kristofferson on backing vocals)
I’ll Fly Away (with Kris Kristofferson on backing vocals)
The Party’s Over (with Kris Kristofferson on backing vocals)
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain
Uncloudy Day

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