The temperature tipped triple digits on Sunday afternoon when a drenched Kris Kristofferson marveled at his audience’s resilience at Bonnaroo. “You all are a great crowd for putting up with this,” he said. “I know there’s a part of you that just makes you want to leave.”
Sunday was full of stroke-inducing heat that forced many festivalgoers to bail early. But Kristofferson’s set of classic country folk songs was worth the effort. At 74, Kristofferson resembles an older version of The Big Lebowski‘s the Dude. He stood onstage alone, spitting out remarkably cackled vocals in the raging heat. He performed the entire set solo with an acoustic guitar as the sounds of bands rocking in other tents threatened to bleed through. “Is that a drum you hear over there?” he asked the crowd, overhearing the Dropkick Murphys’ set at This Tent. “Or is that a cannon firing at us?” After the show, Kristofferson told Rolling Stone, “I liked the audience, but I couldn’t hear my guitar or anything.”
The heat immediately sent Kristofferson’s guitar out of tune, and he stopped several times to attempt to fix the issue. He never did, but the rawness only emphasized his lyrical genius. His acoustic playing was sloppy, like he was plucking barbed wire, and Kristofferson took the opportunity to engage in some self-deprecating humor, mentioning that Bobby Bare and Roger Miller recorded his songs better than he did. During the talking-blues of “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kristofferson blew a rugged harmonica solo, then remarked, “It ain’t Dylan, but it’s all we got.” During “Me and Bobby McGee,” he sang the chorus, “Feeling good was good enough for me,” sneaking in the addition “and Janis.” Joplin’s version hit the top of the charts after her 1970 death.
Between songs, Kristofferson’s banter often took somber political turns. He told the crowd that there are more people behind bars in the United States than any other nation. He sang one of his greatest songs, “Nobody Wins,” a ballad detailing a love affair gone to shreds. “George W. and Dick Cheney sang this in the shower together,” he said. “Nobody won.”
At one point, Kristofferson noticed a Willie Nelson look-alike in the crowd and had to crack a joke: “I know you’re not Willie,” Kristofferson said. “Willie would never stay this long into my set.” Nelson never arrived, but Jamey Johnson joined him onstage to duet on “For the Good Times,” though their harmonies never quite locked in. “It’ll sound better the second time we sing this one,” Kristofferson laughed. After the show, he admitted the experience was intense. “I’m melted,” he told RS as he drained the sweat from his black Western shirt. “That’s probably the hottest thing I’ve had to do in a long time. I’m just glad they were so generous. As long as nobody leaves, it’s cool.”
Earlier, Johnson played a set of outlaw-inspired country tracks, attracting flag-wavers as his seven-piece band busted out his originals and slick covers of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” and George Jones’ “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” Nodding to those who inspired him, he sang, “There will never be another red-headed stranger, a Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues…who’s gonna fill their shoes?” Despite the nostalgic bent of his set, the biggest response came for Johnson’s massive country radio hit “You Should Have Seen It In Color.”
The sun was its most vicious during John Fogerty’s afternoon set at the What Stage. Rocking a stadium-sized crowd, Fogerty focused on Creedance Clearwater Revival tracks and broke out a blistering version of “Born on the Bayou.” He left plenty of room for twangy guitar solos in “Ramble Tamble” and shared a moment of pure rock bliss with his drummer, turning away from the crowd to revel in the sweaty moment.