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John Prine At The Beacon

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About 10 or 11 years ago I had tickets to see a performance by the folk/country singer John Prine, but a hurricane, or rather what was left of one, caused a huge downpour in New York on the night of the show and so I opted not to attend. The show of course went on, and that was that. I have been waiting for him to return to New York ever since, and finally got my chance two nights ago.

During the intervening years, Prine has battled throat cancer, the treatment of which has changed his voice, released four albums, and won a trophy case full of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement award from the BBC, and been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

I came upon Prine by happenstance in 1992. He appeared on the duet track “If You Were The Woman, And I Were The Man” opposite Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies on that group’s album “Black Eyed Man.” They toured toured together that year, and among their stops was one at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon where I was at the time attending college. I got tickets, and attended with a friend, and was prepared to leave after the Cowboy Junkies had finished, but was convinced to stay.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Prine’s show, and quickly realized that most of the people in the audience were there not to see the Cowboy Junkies, but to see him. It was my first exposure to the Prine standards like “Big Ol’ Goofy World” and “Dear Abby.” What I didn’t yet know was that I was seeing a performance by an honest-to-goodness national treasure of the American folk songbook.

A few years after seeing that show, at the suggestion of yet another friend, I started exploring more of Prine’s work and became a devoted fan. I learned that if you peel back the outer skin of the often catchy, funny, self-effacing, working-class songs, you find work of uncommon emotional complexity expressed in an unambiguous manner. In “Blue Umbrella” he comtemplates the state of being emotionally overwhelmed by a relationship gone wrong beyond repair. He tackles false patriotism in “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” a song which can’t help but evoke memories of Country Joe McDonald.

While it’s easy to dismiss Prine’s early work, in particular his 1971 self-titled debut, as intended to be cheap knock-off of Bob Dylan. Casual contemporary observers remember him as “the guy who was supposed to be the next Dylan.” His trajectory from Army vet to postal worker, to open-mic night regular in a Chicago nightclub is well known, as is his discovery by Kris Kristofferson,  made him seem a good candidate for the adjective “Dylanesque.”

Songs like “Sam Stone” sound today as though a record executive told Prine to “do it like Dylan.” Despite its whiny, Dylan-as-hayseed delivery, the subject of the song was cutting edge for 1971. The Vietnam War was entering its closing phase, and a song about a heroin-addicted veteran having difficulty returning to civilian life was something not widely addressed. With “Sam Stone” Prine raised an issue that would not be on the national legislative agenda for another three years, nor firmly established within the popular culture for another seven. The song went on to be covered by no less an American icon as Johnny Cash.

But over time, Prine’s voice of occasional political protest gave way to songs about the emotional indignities of life, expressed in ways that anyone can understand, but which aren’t always easy to put into words. Take the bittersweet “Souvenirs,” a meditation on growing older, or the loving recollection of his grandfather in “Grandpa Was A Carpenter.” Love and relationships, with their relevant pains and joys, as in “Gold Inside Of You” and the peculiarities of intra-couple humor as in “In Spite Of Ourselves,” are constant themes of his work. “Paradise” sounds like it came from the pen of Woody Guthrie.

The performance was excellent, and I was especially happy that Maggie came along as she has endured hearing me talk about Prine for several years. Given her sophisticated and multi-faceted taste for music  — she was the one who first introduced me to the work of Tom Waits — I had really wanted her to come away appreciating Prine.

Like me, she had discovered some of his work by accident. At the DEMO Conference in 2005, we attended the Jam Session party at the close of the first day and slow-danced to a rendition of “Angel From Montgomery.” She became a fan of the song, and was surprised to learn it had been written by the man about whom I had over the years been an occasional nudnik . At Friday’s show she especially liked the spare charm of “Six O’Clock News” and Prine’s standard concert-closing number “Lake Marie,” where he lets loose with the electric guitar, and nods more toward his love of rock, while telling a wide-ranging historical and personal narrative. I have to say I agree with her on that note. On the subdued John Prine scale, “Lake Marie” is a musical epic, and in this performance it lasted 12 minutes.

Prine was backed only by two other musicians variously adding electric guitar, mandolin, and bass fiddle. At times, he appeared solo with only his acoustic guitar. Yet he proved that his simple approach can be suitable for so grand a venue as The Beacon Theater without the assistance of any elaborate performance tricks. His achingly direct delivery, propelled by the power of a heart filled with genuine emotion, to me, was enough to fill the room.

I must admit that in recent years lost some of my interest in Prine. I didn’t think much of his 1999 release of duets “In Spite Of Ourselves,” — it was a little too conventionally country-fied for me — and had concluded that Prine’s best work was behind him. In 2000 he followed with “Souvenirs” in which, post-cancer, he re-records his earlier and best-known work. When he bowed “Fair and Square” in 2005, I presumed there couldn’t possibly be anything on it to write home about, and skipped it without much thought.

How wrong I was. Prine is still writing quality songs. As evidence I submit the gentle “She Is My Everything,” the sunny “Glory Of True Love,” and the rollicking “Bear Creek Blues.” He even nods to political and social commentary in “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” In 2006 “Fair And Square” won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. I’m even enjoying “Standard Songs For Average People.” Clearly, Prine isn’t done with us yet.

I’d say the world needs more John Prines in it, but given the the volume of his output over the years, one has so far proven to be enough.

Below are two samples taken from the performance. The first is his Prine’s well-known “Angel from Montgomery”; the second is “That’s The Way That The World Goes Round.”

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Written by ahess247

May 17th, 2009 at 10:45 am