One of the more moving sentiments that circulated around the Internet shortly after David Bowie died last month read, “If you are sad, just remember that the Earth is more than 4 billion years old, and you managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
The same feeling was in the air Thursday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills for a belated appearance by two of the greatest singer-songwriters of the 20th century: Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson.
The show was particularly reassuring given Haggard’s recent bout with double pneumonia that hospitalized him for a couple of weeks in December, something Haggard said raised fears that the lung cancer he overcame in 2008 might have resurfaced.
But if his voice was not quite 100% a week after he postponed a previously booked L.A. tour stop, his mood was chipper, his guitar playing crisp and his time on a stage shared with one of the few songwriters who can claim to be his equal was an inspiring session of give and take.
Haggard is 78 and Kristofferson is 79, and the vibrancy of their performance felt especially comforting after the numbing series of high-profile musicians’ deaths in recent weeks.
Kristofferson sauntered on stage to open the evening with “Shipwrecked in the Eighties," accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and backed by guitarist Scott Joss from Haggard's band, the Strangers.
The song begins, “You fight like the devil just to keep your head above water/Chained to whatever you got that you can’t throw away.”
That initiated a string of songs so rich in poetic beauty, insight and melodic invention that for the next 90 minutes it was possible to ignore the superficiality of what passes for country music on mainstream radio these days.
“Now we get to the good part," Kristofferson eventually announced. "Merle Haggard,” at which point the crowd at the 1,900-capacity venue gave him a standing ovation.
Haggard demurely doffed his cowboy hat and launched into “Big City,” the first of a dozen songs delivered with the full backing of his seven-piece band, which in recent years has included Haggard’s son Ben, who provided endlessly tasty electric guitar fills and spirited solos on his like-father-like-son Fender Telecaster.
At first, Haggard's voice lacked the authority that has made him one of country’s most respected singers, in addition to his stature as one of its most prolific and consistently insightful writers. But as the evening unfolded, that voice seemed to gain strength both from the light-hearted exchanges with Kristofferson and from the affection heaped on both of them by the audience.
Haggard’s set included cornerstone songs “Silver Wings,” “Workin' Man Blues,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “The Bottle Let Me Down” and a show-closing rendition of “Okie From Muskogee.”
At one point, he started singing his 1982 hit "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver," then abruptly stopped, telling the crowd "Did you know that Donald Trump asked if he could use this song in his campaign?
"I told him 'I have a million fans, and it'll cost you a dollar for each fan.'"
Haggard, Kristofferson and the band explored plenty of in-the-moment spirit elsewhere as well. Between verses and choruses, solos hopscotched from Ben Haggard to veteran steel guitar great Norm Hamlet to saxophonist Renato Caranto and then back to Merle himself.
The bonus part of this tour’s collaboration was the added depth Kristofferson’s songs got from the Strangers, who often subtly slipped in behind him with steel guitar, keyboards or fiddle to the exquisitely crafted songs he typically plays solo.
Case in point: the Strangers fleshed out one of the greatest songs ever written, “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which Kristofferson abruptly ended with a quick “Thank you” after the final line, as he usually does when on his own.
The band stopped on a dime with him, but then Haggard nodded to his fellow musicians as applause swelled, and the group reprised the song’s gorgeous melody for what felt like an instrumental victory lap, one that seemed to please Kristofferson as much as anyone else in the house.
Both men have looked at the big picture throughout their lives, and when Kristofferson served up his latter-day “Feeling Mortal” near the end of the show, he stared down one of the biggest themes of all:
Soon or later I’ll be leaving
I’m a winner either way
For the laughter and the loving
That I’m living with today
Given the losses music fans have experienced of late, those words couldn’t have come at a better time.