During any performance, both the artist, and the audience, will hopefully find themselves removed from thought, completely lost in the moment. It is only afterwards, likely on the journey homeward, or in the next few days after the show, that the temporary muting of the mind will cease and find itself in a more reflective state. As I joined the vast line of audience members shuffling their way out of the historic Town Hall – contentedly, some thirty minutes over the official curfew time – my heart is brimming, brimming with a joy, bountifully thrust into my chest by John Prine.
In amongst the flashbacks of the multiple times that Prine brought the vast hall to the brink of tears with the seemingly simplest of narratives that inform much of his songs, or the many times in which he coaxed hearty laughter with his hilarious anecdotes about the inspiration that led to the creation of songs like ‘Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)’, there is the slightest irritation mulling around. The irritation is not with anything which Prine or his ridiculously accomplished band did. The irritation is with myself – something that you might very well be experiencing too, upon reading this – my apologies.
The annoyance stems from the fact that prior to the show, I had allowed my expectations of Prine’s performance to be dictated by the widely known battles he has had with cancer. The multiple surgeries, the fact that one operation resulted in the removal of part of his neck, which caused nerve damage that required he see a speech therapist in order to regain some semblance of the voice he’d previously had the honour of owning. There were the thoughts of the other performers’ of a similar age that I had seen over the years, little more than cradling their guitars, whilst their hired guns for the night, did their best to fill the void. As the old adage says, you should never judge a book by its cover, a lesson that I had to learn the easy way, witnessing the exuberant and triumphant return of the heroic gentleman that is John Prine.
It’s a welcome bonus to discover that John Moreland has the enviable task of providing the support for the evening. Moreland’s 2017 release, ‘Big Bad Luv’, has been well received by fans and critics alike. This airing of songs that lean heavily upon the latest album afford them to be heard without the backing of a full band, Moreland’s only accompaniment, provided by the precise and understated guitar playing of John Calvin Abney.
There is little time for audience interaction, aside from a heartfelt thank you to the vast numbers that have assembled to hear the often raw laments that dominate much of Moreland’s songs. The onus appears to be on rattling through as many songs as possible in the afforded slot. ‘Sallisaw Blue’ still manages to maintain its driving momentum, even without the backing of a full ensemble. ‘Amen, So Be It’ and ‘SlowDown Easy’ are easily the best of tonight’s offerings. Judging by the numbers in attendance that are mouthing the lyrics back at Moreland, it’s certain that he has a great number of fans in the audience, but a likelihood that he will leave having garnered a great many more by the close of his set.
‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ is Prine’s first record of original material since 2005. Though born in Maywood, Illinois, Prine has long since been a resident of Nashville, immersed in a genre which has seen the burgeoning talents of the likes of Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires and Kurt Vile, single Prine out as a major influence on their own endeavours. Having amassed a sizeable amount of unfinished lyrics, Prine decamped to a hotel for a couple weeks, locking himself away until finally, he emerged with some of those long-standing unfinished songs completed – note the Phil Spector writing credit on ‘God Only Knows’ if you’re in any doubt as to how long Prine had been mulling over some of these pieces. In addition to completing the uncompletable, Prine also found a wealth of brand new songs pouring out of him, much to the delight of fans all over.
‘Six O’Clock News’ opens proceedings, and upon conclusion, it’s a joy to see Prine politely signal to the sound engineer that his guitar needs to be louder. No hiding in plain sight for this stalwart of country. The new album’s opening song, ‘Knockin’ on Your Screen Door’ is up next, and is already wholly familiar to the audience on account of the warm reception it receives. Prine’s voice has certainly dropped a few octaves since his debut album landed in 1971, but the tone sits perfectly with the contemplative spirit that dominate much of his latest material.
‘Summer’s End’ is downright breathtaking, its forlorn sentiments, gloriously delivered by Prine’s beautifully undecorated voice. The band backing Prine are also superb. Their restraint and ability to exist within the song without any sign of muffling the headliner is surely testament as to why many of them have been with Prine for decades. Kenneth Blevins on drums, is currently on secondment with Prine, borrowed from the esteemed Emmylou Harris.
The intriguingly named, Fats Kaplin is the master of a multitude of instruments, his lap-steel and fiddle work is sublime. Dave “Double Duty Daddy” Jacques is firmly a home on either electric or double bass, coming into his element towards the end of a set which as mentioned earlier, sails past the official curfew time by some thirty minutes without as much as a raised eyebrow. The audience, having waited so long to see Prine in Birmingham, are in no hurry to depart. Jacques launches into the driving baseline of ‘Lake Marie’, before the rest of the band tumble on top of his solid groove. As the song reaches it’s soaring conclusion, Prine places his guitar on the stage, before launching into a Cherokee stomp dance, that briefly circles his guitar, before making his way to the side of the stage, finally he turns to face the audience, where he is greeted by a wave of rising bodies, heralding his return. Prine leaves the stage with such fervour and grace that the room is left a little darker for him not being there. Let us hope that this new found momentum is maintained, and that Prine will not leave it so long before making a return to the recording studio, or this fair city.
Six O’Clock News
Knockin’ on Your Screen Door
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)
Caravan of Fools
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody
Hello in There
Granpa Was a Carpenter
Angel from Montgomery
I Have Met My Love Today
Please Don’t Bury Me
Donald and Lydia
Lonesome Friends of Science
That’s The Way the World Goes ‘Round
God Only Knows
When I Get to Heaven
Paradise (with John Moreland)
Reviewer: Chris Curtis