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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Ringing the Chimes of Freedom : Kris Kristofferson stresses the concept during his show at the Crazy Horse Steak House, where pal Willie Nelson joins him for several songs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was no particular matter if one didn’t know the titles to the slew of new songs Kris Kristofferson introduced in his early show Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House. They--and his catalogue of tunes accompanying them--might as well be titled “Songs to Freedom, Nos. 1 to 30.”

There was scarcely a number in his set without the word freedom in it, and there were none that didn’t express some aspect of it. Freedom was viewed through heartaches and hangovers; through the horror of one who feels his nation’s liberties and foreign policy are being subverted; and through the experience of riding horseback over the plains with American Indian friends.

Kristofferson--who was joined onstage by his old pal Willie Nelson for several songs--obviously didn’t take a poll before deciding where he stands on controversial issues, and his career no doubt has suffered from his outspoken politics (for more than a decade most of his recordings have fared no better than “Heaven’s Gate” did in the theaters). Such philosophical differences can only be heightened in this period of zealous flag-waving: His songs touching on the Gulf War received decidedly less applause than his other numbers, and outside a handful of persons protested the show.

On the whole, though, the former Rhodes scholar’s show was received as rapturously as his previous appearances in the county. Perhaps that’s because, agree with him or not, his audience respects the courage it takes to express his views, not just at a Hollywood party stacked with liberals but in a cowboy bar in the heart of Bush country.

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It also may help that Kristofferson expresses those views so well, not only singing about freedom but also performing with a rangy spirit that embodies it. Whether singing his devotional Christian hymn “Why Me” (accompanied by Nelson) or praising the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Kristofferson’s craggy canyon of a voice conveyed a disarming sincerity. His seven-piece band, the Borderlords, including the ever-enjoyable Billy (“I Can Help”) Swann as rhythm guitarist, lent buoyant support throughout.

Kristofferson touched on his earlier, less political years with “To Beat the Devil” and “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” both from his debut album in 1970, and with a too-abbreviated medley of “The Silver-Tongued Devil and I,” “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33" and “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

From the more recent part of his career, he offered several songs from his “Third World Warrior” album, including the title ode to South American liberation movements, with the repeated refrain: “You’ll never beat him with weapons and money/There ain’t no chain as strong as the will to be free.”

On “Don’t Let the Bastards (Get You Down)” from the same album, and the new song “Slouching Towards the Millennium,” he expressed his thoughts about the Gulf War. He introduced the first by noting that 90% of America supported the war and saying, “This is a song for the other 10%.” Whereupon he launched into the lyric: “Killing babies in the name of freedom/We’ve been down that sorry road before. . . . I’ve just got to wonder what my daddy would have done/If he’d seen the way they turned his dream around.” (Kristofferson’s father was a major general in the Air Force. Kristofferson himself arrived at his pacifism only after serving five years as an Army helicopter pilot in the ‘60s.)

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“Slouching Towards the Millennium” was a glum assessment of modern times: “They’ve driven off the fools and saints, and now they stole the show/It’s all a bloody circus, snakes and clowns are in control.” In a mid-song exclamation, he suggested looking into our nation’s support of governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, asking, “How would you like that in your new world order?”

On a more upbeat note, “Here Comes the Rainbow Again” drew on the truck stop diner scene from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to show how human kindness can spring up in the most unlikely places.

Fellow Highwayman Nelson joined in on “Loving Her Was Easier” and then, solo, offered his own anti-war song, “Jimmy.”

Introducing the new “Wild American” as an encore, Kristofferson opined that titles like Democrat and Republican don’t express the real division in this country.

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“I had the idea,” he said, “that there are the wild Americans, who love freedom and justice, and that there are civilized Americans, who settle for the prison.”


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