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Kris Kristofferson’s gravelly poetry excites eager fans in Clearwater

The 83-year-old songwriting legend brought his songbook to life one more time at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. | Concert review
Kris Kristofferson performs at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Jan. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Kris Kristofferson performs at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Jan. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jan. 27
Updated Jan. 27

There was something fitting about the fact that as the Grammys were unfolding 2,200 miles to the west on Sunday, Kris Kristofferson was on a stage in downtown Clearwater, performing to a sold-out crowd.

Kristofferson was an outsider who not only made it through the door, but was embraced as royalty in both Nashville and Hollywood. He’s won a few Grammys, too, but it’s the songs he’ll be remembered for — Me and Bobby McGee, Sunday Morning Coming Down and so many others.

So on a night when peers like Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker and John Prine were being honored in Los Angeles, there was Kristofferson up on stage at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, grinning and pumping his fist before a whooping and hollering house.

Kristofferson, 83, has suffered numerous health issues over the years, including a misdiagnosis that he once believed to be Alzheimer’s but turned out to be Lyme disease. And he no longer moves like the stud he was in the ’70s, though that didn’t stop a few women in the crowd from screaming. Dark eyes and cheekbones go a long way.

Kristofferson’s voice, at this point, is beyond rust and dust — it’s ash, burnt coal, a memory of an echo of a whisper of a ghost. Not that he was ever confused for Edith Piaf, but on Sunday, his gravelly rumble barely passed for Leonard Cohen. On several songs, mostly Merle Haggard numbers, he ceded lead vocals to his (and formerly Haggard’s) backing band, the Strangers. Kristofferson sang along, but added more texture than harmony.

Yet stiff though he was, Kristofferson showed some life, too. He didn’t say much beyond a few hearty “God bless yous," but he pumped his fists and grinned wide through his silver goatee. Occasionally he’d kick his voice into a higher register — even tiptoeing into a falsetto on Feeling Mortal — and it warbled just enough to give you hope.

Each song showcased Kristofferson’s gift for letting lyrics tumble out of him, each syllable more unexpected than the last, until they form a perfect stanza: the picturesque scene-setting of Here Comes That Rainbow Again, the devastating desperation of Help Me Make It Through the Night, the precise, playful character construction of The Pilgrim, Chapter 33. If you listened to the words, you’d get swept away in the heart of From Here to Forever, the seductive poetry of Casey’s Last Ride, the earnest gospel of Why Me.

Fans loved it all, and then some. Between (and during) songs, there was so much cheering, so much singing, so much laughing and yee-hawing that it got a bit distracting. Blame the few fans who treated as call-and-responses songs that clearly were not. It didn’t seem to affect Kristofferson, but it didn’t exactly match the moment.

Fans did get an upbeat, melodic contrast to Kristofferson’s deadwood delivery in fellow Texas songsmith Robert Earl Keen, who opened the show. Keen’s nasal drawl sprung to life with the help of his sprightly backing band, particularly the mandolin, fiddle and pedal steel that wove into and out of each song. Night Right for Love glowed like neon across the starry Texas sky; The Traveling Storm rocked the house with Heartbreakerly heartland power chords.

The night had the feel of a farewell, especially the way Kristofferson closed the show: with songs that explicitly said goodbye, like For the Good Times (“Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over ...”) and Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends (“This could be our last goodnight together ...”). But the hope and optimism he injected into Sunday Morning Coming Down, that all-time songwriter’s-songwriter song about shaking off the night before, made you feel he might not be done.

“There’s something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone,” he sang, as the crowd sang along.

Not this Sunday. On this night, the rest of the music industry was in Los Angeles. But in Clearwater, Kristofferson had everyone right there with him.

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