Kris Kristofferson - vocals, guitar; Rita Coolidge - vocals; Stephen Bruton - guitar, vocals; Dennis Belfield - bass; Donnie Fritts - keyboards; Sammy Creason - drums
For the first time since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro first gained power, the less combative stance of the Carter administration opened an important diplomatic window between Cuba and the United States. After two decades, the U.S. ban on travel to and from Cuba was lifted, creating new diplomatic and cultural exchange opportunities. Sensing the time was right, CBS Records, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, staged an international coup by organizing an unprecedented three-night series of concerts in the Cuban capital of Havana. Dubbed "Havana Jam," this historic cultural exchange took place on March 2, 3 and 4, 1979 at the 4800-seat Karl Marx Theater and marked the first time American musicians had performed in Cuba since the Castro regime gained power two decades prior. The King Biscuit Flower Hour accompanied a plane full of Columbia Records artists as they participated in this first comprehensive music festival held in Cuba, which featured an all-star cast of musicians from a wide range of musical genres. In addition to the cream of the crop of Cuban artists, performers included Weather Report (with Jaco Pastorius on board); Stephen Stills (who had been experimenting with Latin music his entire career); Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge (at the tail end of their marriage); John McLaughlin (famed Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist) performing a one-off trio gig with Tony Williams and Jaco Pastorius; the CBS Records Jazz Allstars, which featured a wealth of jazz greats including the Heath Brothers, Stan Getz, and Dexter Gordon, in addition to the final night headliner Billy Joel. Two albums featuring highlights from these concerts would be issued and in April of 1979, the King Biscuit Flower Hour would nationally broadcast additional material from these historic concerts, most of which has never been officially released.
Here we present five tracks from the Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge set on the second day of Havana Jam, only one of which was officially released on the subsequent albums from this event. The recording begins prior to Coolidge joining the group onstage, with Kristofferson performing an unusual arrangement of one of his greatest songs, "Help Me Make It Through The Night." Although interesting, this classic song suffers from a weak attempt at infusing a Latin feel into the arrangement, as well as the dated keyboard sounds of Donnie Fritts' synthesizer. Fortunately, it is all uphill from here as Rita Coolidge next joins in for a rousing take on The Temptation's hit, "The Way You Do The Things You Do." Featuring a nice Motown groove, here Fritts switches to electric piano, improving the overall sound of the group. Coolidge's compelling vocal and a hot solo by guitarist Stephen Bruton raise the energy level significantly and the Cuban audience responds in kind. The energy level continues building as Coolidge again fronts the group on her cover of Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher," which receives instant recognition from the audience. Coolidge's first international hit, when it soared to number two on the U.S. charts in 1977, this is the only Coolidge performance from this set included on the official releases.
As one can immediately tell, this performance is much less country-oriented than the music on the first two albums Kris and Rita recorded together and more in tune with the final installment in their trilogy, the 1978 album, Natural Act. When they first married and teamed up on the 1973 album Full Moon and its follow-up the next year, Breakaway, Kristofferson was the dominant force, having just come off a successful run of solo albums, movie stardom and established songwriting renown. Coolidge was still developing her solo career, having had a string of moderately selling albums, but better known within the music industry as a gifted backup singer. By the time of this performance, their positions were reversed with Coolidge hot on the heels of her two biggest hit albums and Kristofferson's solo albums struggling to make a dent on the charts.
For the last two numbers Kris and Rita team back up on vocals, delivering impressive readings of "You Show Me Yours," (although the cleverness of Kristofferson's lyric was likely lost in translation) and a truly great performance of the slinky New Orleans flavored "Blues I Do," an impressive writing collaboration between Kristofferson and guitarist Stephen Bruton. The latter song features outstanding piano work from Fritts and although this event occurred shortly before Kristofferson and Coolidge's marriage would end, here their undeniable musical chemistry is still very much intact.