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.