In Portsmouth on Sunday night, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson gave music fans a taste of what country sounded like before arena-rock bombast and Jimmy Buffett-inspired cheer invaded Nashville.
Their show at nTelos Pavilion amphitheater was relaxed and low key in a way that's a far cry from the explosions of sound and light offered by the Toby Keiths and Kenny Chesneys of the world.
That's not to say the show was a snoozer. There's plenty of emotional power in the songs of both men. Both seemed genuinely glad to be on stage on a warm summer night in Virginia. A small-but-appreciative audience hooted and hollered approval as the two country giants -- performing together backed by Haggard's tight, sympathetic band -- dipped again and again into their shared pool of classic songs.
Early in the show Haggard sang "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." Kristofferson followed with "Me and Bobby McGee." Hag did "Mama Tried" and "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down." Kris gave a tender reading of "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
Haggard played lovely electric guitar solos throughout, never hogging the instrumental spotlight, but proving his chops are still sharp. He's singing well, too. Kristofferson, never the strongest of singers, was able to put his lyrics across with style if not melodic precision.
Haggard helped set the tone for the evening on "Are The Good Times Really Over" when he sang:
I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis
And before Vietnam war came along
Before the Beatles and 'Yesterday'
When a man could still work, still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now?
And are the good times really over for good?
The world has changed dramatically since Haggard and Kristofferson came along in the 1960s, but this pair demonstrated that keen musicianship and a well-crafted song never go out of style.
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