Sunday, April 27, 2008

Concert Report: John Prine @ Capitol Center for the Arts

Hey, look at that - we saw a concert at a venue other than the Tupelo Music Hall! Patti and I went up to Concord on Friday night to see John Prine at the beautifully restored Capitol Center for the Arts.

John Prine, April 25, 2008

While perhaps not as widely known as he should be, John Prine has somewhere around 20 albums under his belt, dating back to his self-titled debut album in 1971, which happens to be number 458 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. He has won two Grammy awards - in 1991 for The Missing Years, and in 2006 for Fair and Square, and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. Of all this, though, I suspect John is most well known for writing "Angel from Montgomery", which has become a signature piece for Bonnie Raitt. Prine's deceptively simple lyrics somehow make each and every song almost instantly familiar, telling stories of depth and complexity with simple phrases and nothing extraneous; "Angel" is no exception:

I am an old woman named after my mother
My old man is another child that's grown old
If dreams were lightning thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom'ry
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

John's two-hour set opened with three up-tempo old favorites, "Spanish Pipedream" (also known as "Blow Up Your TV"), "Picture Show", and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore". John was accompanied by a bass player (Dave Jacques, I think - playing both stand up and electric bass) and a guitar player (Jason Wilber, I think - playing both electric guitar and mandolin), and the three of them cranked the energy level for these three songs, instantly getting the audience enthused. "Flag Decal", a sarcastic commentary on patriotism and war, is just as relevant today as it was in 1971:

Well, I got my window shield so filled
With flags I couldn't see.
So, I ran the car upside a curb
And right into a tree.
By the time they got a doctor down
I was already dead.
And I'll never understand why the man
Standing in the Pearly Gates said...

"But your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more.
We're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war.
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for,
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more."

The next three songs slowed the pace down. First up was "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness", which Nanci Griffith did a beautiful cover of on her Other Voices, Other Rooms album. Next up was "Souvenirs", dedicated to the memory of Steve Goodman (they co-wrote it), and then "Far From Me."
And so the set went, mixing the pace every few songs. John played five songs solo in the middle of the set, including "That's The Way The World Goes 'Round" with its now obligatory "happy enchilada" story before the final chorus. See, the chorus of this happy little ditty goes:

That's the way that the world goes 'round.
You're up one day and the next you're down.
It's half an inch of water and you think you're gonna drown.
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

But John tells a wonderful mistaken lyrics story in which a fan once asked him to sing the song about the enchilada. John replied that maybe she had him confused with another songwriter, "perhaps Jimmy Buffet, he writes songs about food!" But the fan insisted it was John's song. "You know, the song about the happy enchilada":

That's the way that the world goes 'round.
You're up one day and the next you're down.
It's a happy enchilada and you think you're gonna drown.
That's the way that the world goes 'round.

John's solo portion ended with the band returning during "Sam Stone." As with "Flag Decal", this heart-wrenching story of the tragic effects of war on returning veterans is as relevant today as it was in 1971:

Sam Stone came home,
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knee.
But the morphine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.

There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don't stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.

"Sam Stone" has been called "the best Dylan song Dylan never wrote", and Dylan actually showed up unannounced at the Bottom Line in 1972 and backed John on harmonica on the song. Johnny Cash also covered "Sam Stone", although Johnny changed "Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose" to "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose".

After "Sam Stone" John switched from acoustic to an electric guitar and the band ripped through the Carter Family's "Bear Creek", "That's Alright By Me", and "She Is My Everything", the latter written for his (third) wife:

She is my everything
From her suntanned shoulders
Down to the freckles
On her wedding ring
Her feet are so warm
They could melt the snow
In the early Spring
She is my everything

After all that electric energy, it was time to bring the pace down with perhaps the saddest song of all, "Hello In There":

Ya' know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, "Hello in there, hello."

So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello."

For the encore, we got both "Illegal Smile" (with big audience sing along on the chorus) and "Paradise." I remember John once telling a story in which bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, after hearing John sing "Paradise", remarked that it sounded like a song which he himself had written but had forgotten all about. John says that was the best compliment he had ever received about one on his songs.

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

We had a full two hours of Prine, and the audience was with him every step of the way. The opening act was Chris Knight, who I had never heard of before but who clearly had a few fans in the audience. His 30 minute set was well received. He's got a gravel voice full of Tennessee drawl, but his songs sounded a little too much straight country for my taste.

The set list...

Spanish Pipedream (aka Blow Up Your TV)
Picture Show
Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Far From Me
Please Don't Bury Me
Fish And Whistle
The Glory Of True Love
Crazy As A Loon
Angel From Montgomery

You Got Gold
Blue Umbrella
Dear Abby
That's the Way that the World Goes 'Round
Mexican Home

Band returns:
Sam Stone
Bear Creek
That's Alright By Me
She Is My Everything
Hello In There
Lake Marie

Illegal Smile

Opening act, Chris Knight:
Enough Rope
Old Man
To Get Back Home
River Road
Encore: It Ain't Easy Being Me


Clay Eals said...

Good to see your John Prine concert review with its passing reference to Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music." The book delves deeply into the relationship between Prine and Goodman, and Prine was a key source among my 1,050 interviewees. (And by the way, though Goodman and Prine dueted memorably on "Souvenirs" in a recording, the song was solely written by Prine.)

You can find out more at my Internet site (below). Amazingly, the book's first printing sold out in just eight months, all 5,000 copies, and a second printing of 5,000 is available now. The second printing includes hundreds of little updates and additions, including 30 more photos for a total of 575. To order a second-printing copy, see the "online store" page of my site. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
(206) 484-8008

Paul Deng said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the review. I am thinking going to his concert in Lowell, Mass. in September.

Do you mind I asking: What's your overall impression of the concert, his voice still good? He looks much older than his age, a bit frail. Hope he is well.


Tom Spine said...

Paul asked, "Do you mind I asking: What's your overall impression of the concert, his voice still good? He looks much older than his age, a bit frail. Hope he is well."

Yes, his voice is still good. And he's actually looking pretty fit. I saw him a couple of years ago, and thought then that he looked like crap. But this past April I was happily surprised that he looks well, looks fit, and sounds great.

BobH said...

I attended the John Prine concert in Lowell, Mass ten days ago. It looks like the identical set list.

The concert was outstanding, the only thing wrong was the acoustics, but since we knew most of the words it was bearable. They should never hold a folk concert, where the lyrics are part of the experience in an echo chamber. You could barely hear his monologues.

Also, since John and Steve Goodman were such good friends, I was surprised to have such little reference to him. After "Souvenirs" He only mentioned "that was dedicated to Steve Goodman" as he was walking away from the mic to get water.

BTW, I have Clay Eals's book on Steve Goodman. It is a treasure trove of info on Steve. It's a real pleasure to read and one of those books, that even though it's about 800 pages long and weighs about five pounds, you just want to savor every page. In encourage everyone with an interest in Steve Goodman's work to get the book.

But, getting back to John Prine. If you have a chance to see him, don't let it pass you by! It'll be well worth it.

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