There are not many of the old original issue John Prines left; that breed of craggy, earnest-but-dryly humorous storyteller-troubadour with Midwestern roots running as deep as ancient maples and ruminations of lives past that are equally old and pulsing and grainy. As a songwriter who poised his characters in a constant state of distress, distaste, wry sly circumstance, or even love with an historic downhome perspective, Prine was (and is, from the sound and furry of his first album in 13 years, The Tree of Forgiveness) a treasure. Add in his usual mix of rough-hewn country and folk with hints of soul and rockabilly, and you’re cooking with gas. Prine’s gruff and ready expressive voice is but icing on a savory confection. And now, Prine – still a mailman at heart, always a contemporary to elders such as Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman and Jackson Browne – has hollowed out a new niche as a godfather to the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Brandi Carlisle, and as a man who outran death (two cancers) and the age’s usual ravages to find himself comfortably humble (and hummable).
In a sold out performance at the Merriam Theater, Prine, his crack musical team (including multi-string man Fats Kaplin), and opening act/occasional on-stage collaborator Kurt Vile, formed a circle around material that was bruised, even busted, but never completely broken down and out for the count.
Yes “the local cemetery, where they’ve already got your name carved in stone” may be waiting for the protagonist of “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone),” but he’s going out with a bang and a hell-of-a-memory. The afterlife of “When I Get to Heaven,” may include pious forgiveness for “everybody ever done me any harm,” but Prine is sure to include some cigarettes booze and mercy for “a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics.”
This is not to say that Prine’s vinegar is full of sugar. Far from it. The huff-and-puffing “Sam Stone” – done on Saturday night with the squeakier Vile – is still one of the starkest saddest glimpses at a post-Vietnam War reality made lyrical. When Prine moaned, “The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o’clock news. His brains were on the sidewalk, his blood was on his shoes” on the plucked acoustic “Six O’clock News.” It was as if the author was our own version of Walter Cronkite – puffed of chest while pragmatically handing us the facts. Prine at 71 – and after more than an few health problems – may have even resembled a hip Cronkite (black suited and spiky haired) as he spoke of a cracking voice, (“my second puberty,” this time where “your hair falls out and little people start calling you Grandpa”) and a life lovingly saved by his wife, Fiona, who joined Prine & Co on a buoyant “Boundless Love” send off.
Which leads me to my only complaint: pacing. There were minor keys (the soft gypsy-ish “Caravan of Fools”), tender mercies (the gently swaying “Hello in There”), and gender-jumping pleas (“Angel From Montgomery”) rendered with smooth precision despite the singer’s occasional baritone hoarseness. This reviewer however would have loved to hear some bounce in the middle and more rawness in its arrangements to match Prine’s naked scruffy lyrics and his sensationally graveled voice. Then again nobody asked the “Venus Di Milo” to grab another arm so I may just be writing churlishly on this account.
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