A Star Is Torn

Lamenting Joanna Newsom and crying over Kris Kristofferson at SXSW

Anyway. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, while seated amongst a handful of hipsters in the bar of a posh hotel in Austin, I get a call from Tangborn, who informs me that Kristofferson will be playing an ultra-secret show at a small club, the Continental. "Whoopee," I think to myself, looking around for a waitress to bring me another martini. I thank Tangborn for the tip, tell him I'll try to make it, and hang up.

"You guys wanna go see a secret Kris Kristofferson show?" I ask my drinking buddies. Unanimously, they answer, "No." I call up some friends and ask the same question. One of them actually laughs at me.

But strange things happen to a person when he starts drinking at noon, and so two hours later I'm standing next to Jason Lee, the actor, in a club half full with maybe 50 people, counting the minutes until Kristofferson goes on, not because I can't wait to see him, but simply because it's getting late, and Dizzee Rascal's playing in a bit; so is N.E.R.D. And I love N.E.R.D. Finally the MC shows up, quiets the crowd, and preps us for what we're about to see: "Every once in a while, South by Southwest does something special," he begins, and before I know it the dude who starred in Millennium is taking the stage.

In the time it takes to sneeze, the room is transformed. Suddenly SXSW is no longer the hippest place to be, no longer a fashion convention or a drinking contest, no longer a gathering place for know-it-all journalists or celebrity rock stars. It's just a place. And this is just a bar. And Jason Lee is just some dude (with a funny haircut). And that man up onstage -- who is responsible for this switcheroo -- is plainly and wonderfully just some other dude, only a dude with a guitar and a harmonica playing the simplest, sweetest melodies I have ever heard in my life. Dried-out songs like "Me and Bobby McGee" are rehydrated by this man; he's like that charmed weirdo who picks up the dead hummingbird and zaps it back to life: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose/ Nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free."

Did you hear that? I want to shake Jason Lee and ask. He's totally on to something!

Throughout his 45-minute set, Kristofferson never does more than pluck a few notes or play a few chords. His vocal range is sparse; the guy can barely sing. But he owns this stage. I cannot tell you why lines such as this one, "Then I crossed the empty street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken/ And it took me back to something that I've lost somehow, somewhere along the way," make so much sense coming out of Kristofferson's mouth, but they do. Across town, dozens of trendy bands are playing next month's anxious, noisy hits, songs I'll no doubt fall in love with and sing the praises of. But for the time being, Kris Kristofferson is reminding us all that two-chord meditations can still be rapturous. As my dad asks when I call to tell him about the concert, "Why don't they write songs like that anymore?" And for the first time in countless years since he's been asking that question, I know what he's talking about, even if I still don't have an answer.

The best part of the set, though, is about halfway through, when I look over at Tangborn to hand him a Budweiser. After at least a dozen years in this business, having held almost every music-related job there is, from label owner to music editor to college radio DJ, it's fair to say that Tangborn has seen it all. But on a warm night in Austin, this 6-foot-3, sideburn-wearin' man is crying big fat tears of joy. Like a sloppy, happy baby.

The feeling was contagious. It was just that kind of show.

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