John Prine At Carnegie Hall

John Prine is one of those musicians that has a good deal of name recognition but not a whole lot of music recognition. I would wager that the majority of people who aren’t intimately familiar with Prine know him as the talented singer/songwriter of numerous songs they can’t quite name while the others simply know him from Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel Of Montgomery.” The rest think he’s John Hiatt. Myself, I fell in love with “Lake Marie” after hearing it on Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, I can pick his voice out of a lineup and I know that I should respect the hell out of him even if I can’t discourse intelligently on his back catalog. Given that history, my interest was piqued when I learned that the legendary singer was playing Carnegie Hall. Combine that with the fact that I never did the “practice, practice, practice” to get there on my own (actually, that would assume I can play an instrument), this past Saturday’s show became a must-attend.

Wearing one of Mao Tse Tung’s old outfits, Prine, who recently turned 61, became one of the unlikeliest performers to play a near three hour set. Flanked by guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques, Prine played simple arrangements of the country, blues and Americana songs that exemplify his career. Prine may not have lacked for a number of songs to chose from in order to pad out three hours, he did, though, lack for variety.


For the first hour of the show, Prine struggled to hit his stride. Playing rhythm on an acoustic guitar, Prine offered a number of uninspired country-tinged songs that were not at all enthralling. Even worse, whenever they joined in, Wilber and Jacques tended to overpower Prine’s acoustic guitar. When Prine moved to the electric guitar for a couple blues-inflected numbers, his supporting players earned their worth. In finding the right balance with Prine’s voice and guitar, they made him sound a bit like Lou Reed in his bare-bones rock period. A better addition, Iris DeMent, one of Prine’s favorite country singers, joined Prine for a few country duets including “We’re Not The Jet Set” and the spouse swapping elegy “Let’s Have Them Over.” Her decidedly country twang was an intriguing foil for Prine’s gruff and raspy voice and their collaborations were Grand Ole Opry quality performances. When Prine wheeled out a birthday cake and trotted out Greg Brown to wish her “Happy Birthday,” DeMent seemed genuinely thrilled.

The middle portion of the show featured Prine playing solo and during these songs he was at his most riveting. Much like Levon Helm, Prine’s battle with throat cancer, has given added depth and texture to an already gravelly voice. It’s as singular as it is captivating. In chatting up the audience between songs, Prine occasionally became slightly befuddled. Although he claimed he could sing in more than one key (meaning two), he kept starting one song over until he thought he found the right one. However, his voice never seemed to change pitch with each effort leaving you to wonder whether Prine prepared some shtick for Carnegie Hall. Over the course of the night, Prine would often forgot a line or two and after a lengthy preamble to one song, he realized halfway through it that he was playing a different one. All these little miscues were ridiculously endearing and all in all, I would have rather heard Prine misquote lyrics and tell rambling stories all night than try to incorporate the other members of the band into the performance.

As you would expect, a predominantly older crowd came to see Prine at Carnegie Hall. This is always a recipe for an entertaining experience as you can count on a 50-something ex-hippie telling the college kid in front of him to stop dancing and sit down or catch a housewife scowling at the stoner for having the nerve to light up at a rock concert. Fortunately, I guess, none of those happened. It probably helped that there is no beer concession inside the revered venue. However, for every Wilber guitar solo, perfectly suited to Prine’s uncomplicated melodies, the crowd reacted with an embarrassing overblown enthusiastic reaction. If you haven’t been to many shows, I’m sure Wilber’s skills seemed impressive. When you’ve become accustomed to seeing Josh Clark, Rob Salzer or Scott Tournet shred on a regular basis, Wilber’s efforts were pretty damn underwhelming.

At the heart of it all, Prine is one incredible songwriter and he rightfully had Carnegie Hall hanging on every word of “The Missing Years,” “Please Don’t Bury Me” and “Angel From Montgomery.” In a happy marriage of the performer agreeing that my favorite song is one of his best, Prine closed the night with a solid version of “Lake Marie” No matter that he flubbed a line, lost his place and had to have the band cover for him until he regained his bearings, all that proves is that one of the master storytellers of our era likes to occasionally change the script.

This post was written by David Schultz, a regular over at Earvolution.com. I’ve struck up a nice friendship with Dave over the past year or so, unfortunately only from a distance, but we’re planning on partying it up at SXSW ’08 coming up in March. Expect some more writing from him in the meantime.

15 COMMENTS

  1. YES! John Prine is such an amazing musician. He singlehandedly turned me from passive appreciation for singer/songwriters to having a huge love for them (or those cut from a certain Guy Clark/Gillian Welch/Lyle Lovett/etc. cloth). The first time I saw him, I knew immediately the magic he held. It was at Merlefest, during the Springtime in the Appalachians, and midway through his set, as if to punctuate a sentence, an incredibly bright meteor not only passed directly over our heads, but split in two and became even brighter. The crowd collectively gasped at this and then cheered wildly. I knew then that this was a man to pay attention to.

    The second time I saw him perform was at Telluride Bluegrass Fest. On the way in, he was across the aisle from me on the plane, and I was compelled to strike up conversation. A passing mention was muttered that I didn’t know when his off-festival theater performance was, and that I sure hoped I’d make it. Mr. Prine stood up from his seat, got his bag out of the overhead compartment, dug around to get out his day planner, and retrieved me the date and time of his performance, and then handed it to me so I could accurately refer to it for my own notes!
    Later in the weekend, he was playing the song Bear Creek on the mainstage at the festival. On the second time around, during the verse “Way up on Bear Creek, watching the sun go down” the sun dipped below the high mountain horizon and immediately changed the lighting on the crowd. It was as if Mr. Prine had a lighting technician controlling not only the stage lighting, but the sun as well.

    Between the stars incident, and the sunset incident, I am 100% certain that he is a true force, and one of the kindest musicians I have ever met, as well. Sorry this is so long, I just have a lot of love for John Prine.

  2. YES! John Prine is such an amazing musician. He singlehandedly turned me from passive appreciation for singer/songwriters to having a huge love for them (or those cut from a certain Guy Clark/Gillian Welch/Lyle Lovett/etc. cloth). The first time I saw him, I knew immediately the magic he held. It was at Merlefest, during the Springtime in the Appalachians, and midway through his set, as if to punctuate a sentence, an incredibly bright meteor not only passed directly over our heads, but split in two and became even brighter. The crowd collectively gasped at this and then cheered wildly. I knew then that this was a man to pay attention to.

    The second time I saw him perform was at Telluride Bluegrass Fest. On the way in, he was across the aisle from me on the plane, and I was compelled to strike up conversation. A passing mention was muttered that I didn’t know when his off-festival theater performance was, and that I sure hoped I’d make it. Mr. Prine stood up from his seat, got his bag out of the overhead compartment, dug around to get out his day planner, and retrieved me the date and time of his performance, and then handed it to me so I could accurately refer to it for my own notes!
    Later in the weekend, he was playing the song Bear Creek on the mainstage at the festival. On the second time around, during the verse “Way up on Bear Creek, watching the sun go down” the sun dipped below the high mountain horizon and immediately changed the lighting on the crowd. It was as if Mr. Prine had a lighting technician controlling not only the stage lighting, but the sun as well.

    Between the stars incident, and the sunset incident, I am 100% certain that he is a true force, and one of the kindest musicians I have ever met, as well. Sorry this is so long, I just have a lot of love for John Prine.

  3. The photo credit for the poster on this page was taken by Larry Costa for John Prine’s fan site at jpshrine.org – see the reviews for NY for more views. It was another Prine spectacular show and David Shultz was way off the mark with his remarks about uninspiring, Prine’s electric guitar, Jason Wilber and JP’s clothing, but it really caused me to become defensive and take the comments personally. That’s what John Prine’s music does for me, he makes it mine. Thanks for your views Mr Shultz, but you can keep them.

  4. The photo credit for the poster on this page was taken by Larry Costa for John Prine’s fan site at jpshrine.org – see the reviews for NY for more views. It was another Prine spectacular show and David Shultz was way off the mark with his remarks about uninspiring, Prine’s electric guitar, Jason Wilber and JP’s clothing, but it really caused me to become defensive and take the comments personally. That’s what John Prine’s music does for me, he makes it mine. Thanks for your views Mr Shultz, but you can keep them.

  5. We were sittig in the business class section of the an airplane, (obviously) wedged between a nice old lady and a window. Finally a window seat we thought. Too bad it was unfortunate, a stormy night, and the plane was being pushed and pulled in a variety of directions. My neighbor, a women of about 65, was none too pleased with the turbulence but found her salvation in a pair of very strong drinks, which quickly removed the worry from her face. Soon after, she was three sheets to the wind and off in her world of slumber.

    As for me, sitting in the darkness of the cabin, my eyes turned toward the window next to me. Looking out into the night sky on such a rainy night, there was little to see. It stuck me deep inside, the idea that anything could be out there. And then it happened . . .

    “That will be 150,” a woman’s voice said.

    I turned, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw the stewardess, with her outstretched palm, asking for money.

    “But I didn’t order a drink,” I told her.

    “It was right there,” she demanded. “I see it right there on your tray.”

    Yet there was no drink there. I had not seen a drink. A bottle. Nothing. Yet she insisted she had seen it with such determination, it was scary.

    Then my neighbor was awakened by the discussion and she, too, weighed in on the situation. She chimed in that she had seen it as well.

    Before long, it became an eerie conversation about whether I had seen it, if it had mysteriously appeared then disappeared, and whether I was insane. The stewardness was getting extremely volatile.

    Another 15 minutes of arguing and a few additional stewardesses joining in on the mytery of the phantom vodka bottle, I gave in and paid the money. My sleep was worth much more than such a strange an eerie argument.

  6. We were sittig in the business class section of the an airplane, (obviously) wedged between a nice old lady and a window. Finally a window seat we thought. Too bad it was unfortunate, a stormy night, and the plane was being pushed and pulled in a variety of directions. My neighbor, a women of about 65, was none too pleased with the turbulence but found her salvation in a pair of very strong drinks, which quickly removed the worry from her face. Soon after, she was three sheets to the wind and off in her world of slumber.

    As for me, sitting in the darkness of the cabin, my eyes turned toward the window next to me. Looking out into the night sky on such a rainy night, there was little to see. It stuck me deep inside, the idea that anything could be out there. And then it happened . . .

    “That will be 150,” a woman’s voice said.

    I turned, and you can imagine my surprise when I saw the stewardess, with her outstretched palm, asking for money.

    “But I didn’t order a drink,” I told her.

    “It was right there,” she demanded. “I see it right there on your tray.”

    Yet there was no drink there. I had not seen a drink. A bottle. Nothing. Yet she insisted she had seen it with such determination, it was scary.

    Then my neighbor was awakened by the discussion and she, too, weighed in on the situation. She chimed in that she had seen it as well.

    Before long, it became an eerie conversation about whether I had seen it, if it had mysteriously appeared then disappeared, and whether I was insane. The stewardness was getting extremely volatile.

    Another 15 minutes of arguing and a few additional stewardesses joining in on the mytery of the phantom vodka bottle, I gave in and paid the money. My sleep was worth much more than such a strange an eerie argument.

  7. I haven’t been to NYC in a few years. Last time there a bum on the subway stuck his tounge in my left ear. So much for learning a big city secret…

    Anyway, from Huntsville, Tx to Carnegie Hall I have to say, Santa was really, really good to me. That, comming tail on after NYE and three days with New Monsoon in Austin, you’d think I paid Santa off or held the ‘silly season’ at gunpoint…

    Yeah, sometimes being bad, in the right way, works out… :)

    John Prine is a favorite with the campfire crowd around here so it was good to see him again. He gets passed around alot on guitar. Probably too much, I guess that’s ’cause none of us (John included) can really sing, but no matter, it makes the women all gooshy and keeps the coyotes off. Plus, all that beer kinda makes your ears numb.

    Like usual, John flubbed a few lines. “Turtle Salad and a Happy Enchilada….” Hey, we don’t care, hardcores know that’s part of his charm. Coupled with the bubble gum omen John mentioned at the start of the show, we all knew what kind of night it was gonna be…

    …all that was missing was a good campfire.

    …ummm… and John, just in case you catch this, we’ve already got tickets for Hot Springs… We’ll be out at Lake Catherine in one of the cabins… drop by and we’ll sing ya something you’ve probably heard before…

  8. I haven’t been to NYC in a few years. Last time there a bum on the subway stuck his tounge in my left ear. So much for learning a big city secret…

    Anyway, from Huntsville, Tx to Carnegie Hall I have to say, Santa was really, really good to me. That, comming tail on after NYE and three days with New Monsoon in Austin, you’d think I paid Santa off or held the ‘silly season’ at gunpoint…

    Yeah, sometimes being bad, in the right way, works out… :)

    John Prine is a favorite with the campfire crowd around here so it was good to see him again. He gets passed around alot on guitar. Probably too much, I guess that’s ’cause none of us (John included) can really sing, but no matter, it makes the women all gooshy and keeps the coyotes off. Plus, all that beer kinda makes your ears numb.

    Like usual, John flubbed a few lines. “Turtle Salad and a Happy Enchilada….” Hey, we don’t care, hardcores know that’s part of his charm. Coupled with the bubble gum omen John mentioned at the start of the show, we all knew what kind of night it was gonna be…

    …all that was missing was a good campfire.

    …ummm… and John, just in case you catch this, we’ve already got tickets for Hot Springs… We’ll be out at Lake Catherine in one of the cabins… drop by and we’ll sing ya something you’ve probably heard before…

  9. >>Like usual, John flubbed a few lines. “Turtle Salad and a Happy Enchilada….”

    You have no clue…get the live album

    I was there…It was a great night…I thought the review was silly…from saying that it was a must attend performance, which it was, critizing the thing that makes it great is silly…down home rocks….wish I really knew who JP was when I was wet behind the ears when I saw hime in Stanhope…now I can’t wait to see him again..in a samll venue…yeah right…Go catch Dan Hicks in peiepoint ny..that’s a treat as well

  10. >>Like usual, John flubbed a few lines. “Turtle Salad and a Happy Enchilada….”

    You have no clue…get the live album

    I was there…It was a great night…I thought the review was silly…from saying that it was a must attend performance, which it was, critizing the thing that makes it great is silly…down home rocks….wish I really knew who JP was when I was wet behind the ears when I saw hime in Stanhope…now I can’t wait to see him again..in a samll venue…yeah right…Go catch Dan Hicks in peiepoint ny..that’s a treat as well