Without any introduction, Kris Kristofferson waltzed onstage Sunday at the sold-out Mystic Lake Casino and started singing. One line into "Shipwrecked in the Eighties" and -- uh oh -- he sounded like Jeff Bridges trying to audition for the lead role in "The King's Speech" by doing that scene with a mouth full of marbles.
Fighting a bad cold, Kristofferson, a limited vocalist to begin with, was in tough shape. Luckily, he was sharing the stage with old pal Merle Haggard and, on Oscar night, Haggard turned the concert into a new-fangled bromantic comedy that could have been called "Help Me Make it Through the Night." Every fan at Mystic Lake knew the scripted part because Haggard and Kristofferson are part of the Mount Rushmore of country-music songwriters. But it was the ad libbed bits that made this a wonderfully special and unforgettable night.
Haggard, 73, took over chores as emcee, cracking jokes about marijuana, Bob Dylan, Egypt, airport body searches, the booze-free Mystic Lake, his band, wife, advanced age, own songs and Kristofferson's voice. Hag has never been more outgoing, talkative and funny. Plus, he sounded in good voice (especially considering he had a lung removed three years ago because of cancer), played some pretty nifty electric guitar during Kristofferson's numbers and even sang one of Kristofferson's tunes for him (contrary to plans, Hag ended up singing more selections than his partner).
In short, Haggard was so outstanding Sunday that he merited Oscars for lead and supporting actor -- and earned an A plus as host. As for Kristofferson, how 'bout an Irving Thalberg award for lifetime achievement?
Working with a truncated and quieter incarnation of his usual backup band, Haggard played sweetly understated songs of romance, social commentary and personal struggle. While his best-known "Okie from Muskogee" sounded like a dated sing-along (featuring a silly new verse from Kristofferson that had the crowd hooting), much of his material seemed timeless; the pro-soldier "Fightin' Side of Me" and the recession-enduring "If We Make It Through December" (a jazzy, jaunty highlight) seemed to resonate anew.
Kristofferson, 74, proffered classics from his rich catalog, poetic reflections on romance, alcohol and God. Rather than trying to sing, he delivered his pieces more like recitation of poetry over music, with Haggard's guitar providing poignant punctuation. His Telecaster coda on the hangover anthem "Sunday Morning Coming Down" was more assertive and emotional than Kristofferson's voice.
Midway through the 100-minute set, Kristofferson, picking up on the show's bromantic comedy notion, playfully modified the final refrain on his famous seduction: "Help me make it through tonight."
And that's what Haggard did.
For a set list, go to www.startribune.com/artcetera. Jon Bream • 612-673-1719