All night long, Kris Kristofferson's voice had been little more than a sandpapered whisper, so soft that you might have had to strain to hear it at the sold-out Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Then suddenly he not only raised his voice but assertively declared, "God almighty, here I am" during "Feeling Mortal."
It was almost like, at 83, Kristofferson, one of country music's greatest songwriters, was ready to face his maker. His unexpectedly excellent two-set, 100-minute performance had a distinctive farewell feel in content and tone.
Kristofferson, who seemed impossibly stiff onstage, lacked the radiant vitality Tony Bennett displayed this summer at age 93 or the feel-good spark that Willie Nelson showed here at age 86.
Granted, both those American music institutions spent only about one hour each onstage in Minneapolis. Kristofferson paced himself. Sixteen tunes in the nearly hourlong first set, 13 after intermission. "Do whatever you do during the break," the silver-haired man in black urged when he mentioned the imminent 15-minute halftime.
Last time Kristofferson performed in the Twin Cities, in 2015 at the Minnesota State Fair with Merle Haggard, he could barely make it through a song that night. Like your grandpa having a senior moment, he had trouble with lyrics, stamina and focus. Luckily, he was saved by Haggard and the Strangers, Haggard's terrific band.
On Tuesday, Kristofferson was focused, determined and steady. He didn't flub a lyric (he had a teleprompter), and he seemed engaged with his band, the audience and his songs. He didn't talk much, other than the occasional "thank you" and "God bless ya" when the fan response endured after a song. Usually a witty guy, the former Rhodes Scholar in English literature cracked only one joke all night; it was in the middle of his classic "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" when he intoned "And found my cleanest dirty shirt," he muttered "I'm wearin' it" and chuckled.
More reciting his penetratingly poetic lyrics than singing them (even in his heyday, he wasn't much of a singer with his rumbling rasp of a voice), he performed all songs in the key of Kristofferson, which means a three-note range and the truth.
The singer/guitarist/harmonica player let keyboardist Doug Colosio carry the easy melodies, drummer Jeff Ingraham brush the gentle rhythms and fiddler Scott Joss provide the heartfelt seasoning. All three used to be members of Haggard's band.
To alter the dynamics in the concert, Joss took lead vocals Tuesday on a few Haggard classics, including "Okie from Muskogee" and "Sing Me Back Home," with his studied Hag phrasing and heartwarming baritone. Joss' own tune, "How Far to Jordan," a near-spiritual about impending mortality, fit perfectly with the perhaps unintentional but unmistakable theme of the evening.
Kristofferson has specialized in songs reflecting on God, loneliness and hangovers. When he sang about complicated romances coming to an end, it felt like he was addressing both his road and his relationship with his audience coming to an end. Whether it was Haggard's "That's the Way Love Goes" or his own "For the Good Times," "I'd Rather Be Sorry" or "Why Me," there was a sense of taking stock, leaving with no regrets and having one last good time together.
Kristofferson underscored this finality in his finale, "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends," a tune he recorded in the 1970s with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge.
"This could be our last goodnight together," he crooned if you could call it a croon. "We may never pass this way again. Just let me enjoy till it's over/Or forever. Please don't tell me how the story ends."
It ends with his songs living on forever and ever.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719