Back in 2012, I reviewed John Prine in concert. It turned out to be one of the most popular live reviews I ever wrote, based on the number of online shares. Obviously, that had nothing to do with me or my scribbling. It was all about the well-deserved loyalty of his fan base, inspired by the simple, homespun genius of the man himself. Since April 7 is the anniversary of his 2020 death from Covid, I’m putting it on the front page again. RIP John. You will be missed. You will not be forgotten.
John Prine makes it look easy.
It isn’t, of course. You don’t get to be one of the most beloved and respected songwriters of your generation without plenty of blood, sweat, toil, tears and sacrifice. But you’d never know that from listening to Prine’s music — his words and melodies flow so beautifully and so naturally, it’s as if they wrote themselves. You’d never know it from talking to him — during my recent interview with him, he swore the songs and success came with little effort on his part. And you’d certainly never know it from watching his Saturday night show at Burton Cummings Theatre, where the legendary singer-guitarist serenaded 1,000 worshipful fans with all the relaxed confidence and effortless beauty of a true master at work (and play).
Not that the 65-year-old Prine necessarily looks the part. With his grizzled features and rumpled black suit with bolo tie, he kind of reminds you of an old-time prospector who’s come in from the wilderness to attend a funeral — and perhaps marry the deceased’s widow. But once he picks up his guitar and gets to work, you know those looks have deceived. And you know you’re in the presence of greatness. Perhaps even genius.
For those not up to speed on the man — and you really should correct that ASAP, by the way — most of Prine’s songs come in one of two basic flavours: Mischievous ditties that will put a whimsical grin on your mug, and unflinching ballads that will tear a hole in your heart. As he has for years in concert, he kicked off with one of the former: Spanish Pipedream, an upbeat tale of a topless dancer and Montreal-bound soldier who blow up their TV, build a home in the country, feed their children peaches and find Jesus. He followed that up with the thoughtful Picture Show, a tale of James Dean, stardom and how the camera steals a bit of your soul. Then came the first grim reaper of the night: Six O’Clock News, a haunting chronicle of incest and death. When Prine sang the punch line — “The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o’clock news / His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes” — you could have heard a pin drop in the hall.
That opening triptych more or less set the tone for the night; Prine spent most of his magnificently sequenced 20-song set juxtaposing light with heavy, humour with heartbreak, sadness with silliness. Not many songwriters could have pulled off. Of course, not many songwriters are Prine. Not many have his personality, either. “This next song, I ain’t got no good reason for writing it,” he said by way of introducing the hard-luck story Fish and Whistle. “It didn’t hurt nobody. It’s got a bit of truth in it and a lot of lies. But they all rhyme.”
Prine’s lyrics do a lot more than rhyme, of course. They get right down to the nitty-gritty of the human condition — life and love and jealousy and revenge and the whole sorry mess. All the Best was a fingerpicked wedding toast to an ex, delivered with just a soupcon of sardonic bitterness (“I wish you don’t do like I do / And ever fall in love with someone like you”); the ’60s pop-infused Glory of True Love offered a sincere paean to that which makes the world go ’round; and the slow-burning Angel From Montgomery — for my money, one of the most beautifully sad songs ever written — painted a portrait of a love slowly smothered by the years. Naturally, Prine played them back to back to back.
But he didn’t play them alone. As usual, he was accompanied by the duo of bassist David Jacques and guitarist Jason Wilber. The latter spent the evening decorating the boss’s songs with everything from chicken-pickin’ Telecaster licks and shimmering slide runs to fluttering mandolin lines; the former gently held down the bottom end, switching between electric and standup basses and occasionally pulling out a bow when darker, more subtle shadings were needed.
About halfway through the set, the duo took a break and left Prine on his lonesome. He made the most of it with a quartet of gems: The wistfully goofy Sins of Memphisto (“I wrote that last song in a hotel room under duress,” he said cryptically), the poignant Donald and Lydia, about a couple who make love “from 10 miles away”; the advice-column lark Dear Abby, complete with autobiographical fourth verse (lucky us; Prine told me he doesn’t play that tune every night any more) and the unflinching Vietnam vet junkie-blues Sam Stone. On the solo numbers, his weathered rasp — the side-effect of a bout with throat cancer several years ago — was far more noticeable. But it wasn’t a detriment; Prine can still hit all the notes. And if anything, the gruffer tone somehow suits him perfectly these days, just as his clearer pipes did in his youth.
His rusty pipes also came in handy when Jacques and Wilber returned. Prine strapped on an electric guitar to close out his main set with wiry versions of the self-explanatory Sweet Revenge, the Celtic-tinged She is My Everything (penned for his Irish wife Fiona) and the dark epic Lake Marie, which is kind of what Crazy Horse might have sounded like fronted by JP instead of NY. Between songs, fans — some hoisting homemade signs proclaiming their love of the Prine — had peppered him with a dozen other beloved and immortal titles. “I know ’em all,” he winkingly replied. But he wasn’t taking requests.
Nor did he need to; as the final crashing chords of Lake Marie ebbed, the crowd came to their feet with a standing ovation. He earned another one with his three-song encore, during which he enlisted opening acts Kendel Carson and Dustin Bentall to help out on the crazy-love number In Spite of Ourselves, the yearning Speed at the Sound of Loneliness and the nostalgic Paradise. For Prine fans, that last title summed up the night. Easy.
Six O’Clock News
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Christmas in Prison
Fish and Whistle
All the Best
Glory of True Love
Angel from Montgomery
Sins of Memphisto
Donald and Lydia
Bear Creek Blues
She is My Everything
In Spite of Ourselves
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness