John Prine Will Live Forever
Songman gives Austin a taste of paradise
By Kevin Curtin,
11:05AM, Mon. May 18, 2015
You can’t help but crack a smile when John Prine walks on stage.
Not on account of his appearance at 68: eyes squinty, cheeks cartoonishly chubby, gravity-defying wisps of grey hair – all on a head that, since his late-Nineties cancer bout, appears screwed on crooked. Rather, it’s that the Illinois native exudes pure happiness, like he could have auditioned for Dalai Lama had he not become a songwriter.
Saturday night at Bass Concert Hall, kicking off his first local performance since 2012, the folksinger rambled through “Glory of True Love” and “Long Monday,” both cuts from his Grammy-winning 2005 effort, Fair & Square. Their quirky prose demonstrated the value of Prine in concert: you’re never left waiting for a good line. The delivery was equally efficient, backed by a working class trio of mandolin, electric guitar, and upright bass.
Prine’s nasally pronunciation, meanwhile, proved evergreen even though his talking voice has grown to a croak.
Digging back to 1973, the former mail carrier jumped the tempo up a notch with “Please Don’t Bury Me,” inspiring a loud singalong with unruly emphasis on the line, “Send my mouth way down south and kiss my ass goodbye!” With that, a barrier was broken and a loving audience began shouting out its adoration (“You’re a poet, John!”) They howled in recognition to the opening notes of “Souvenirs” and “Grandpa Was a Carpenter.”
Someone in the orchestra level even lit a joint.
“Growing up, when I’d walk into a room full of strangers, I’d find myself gravitatin’ over to the area where the elderly people were, because I thought maybe they knew something that I didn’t,” Prine told the audience. “And usually they did if I shut up long enough. I always thought when I grew up, that’s what I wanted to be: an old person.”
The singer looked down, assessing himself.
That signaled one of his most compelling early works, “Hello in There,” a song about the loneliness of senior citizens. The vibe inside the massive hall remained beautiful even when it transformed from exuberant to serious. At least half of his audience was elderly couples.
Prine coupled that raw dose of the human reality with his lonely Southern housewife anthem, “Angel From Montgomery,” imbued with emotional upright bass bowing by longtime bandmate Dave Jacques. He dedicated the song to Bonnie Raitt, who made it a signature of her repertoire, and noted they’d recently played it together at a charity event. They were so happy to see each other that they ruined a sad song by smiling all the way through.
As his band exited, Prine went solo, stoking another singalong with marijuana anthem “Illegal Smile.” That proved the evening’s high note – even if it was accidental.
“I was tryna sing, uh, ‘You Got Gold,’” he chuckled afterward. “I could’t remember the first line, then I thought, ‘Hell, this sounds just like “Illegal Smile.”’”
After a perfect solo version of Vietnam tragedy “Sam Stone,” Prine welcomed his group back onstage and picked up an electric guitar for rocked-up versions of Fair & Square’s “That’s Alright By Me” and “She is My Everything.” It was the most indulgent moment of the weekend affair, two so-so cuts, performed in a muddy, sans-drums set up. Better would’ve been live staple “Fish & Whistle” and his eternal cover of local bum-bard Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons.”
Happily, it was another cornerstone of Prine’s set lists that crowned the evening after he wished the crowd goodnight and waked behind the curtain. Since “Paradise” awaited, the headliner emerged with full band, opener Justin Townes Earle, and Tommy Prine, his youngest son visiting from Nashville. Together, they all sang the timeless ode to his grandparents’ favorite spot in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where he played as a child before a coal company’s power shovels erased it from civilization.
The chorus became literal when the younger Prine, strumming an acoustic guitar, sang, “Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where paradise lay?” The elder Prine then answered with, “I’m sorry, my son, but you’re too late in askin’. Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
The exchange stands just as true as when John Prine first sang the song to his own father in the Seventies. That’s why songs can live forever.