From the opening chords of Spanish Pipedream to the ensemble version of Paradise that closed the show, John Prine charmed a warmly receptive audience Friday night at The Louisville Palace — and with good reason.
There were many highlights in the 20-plus song set, spanning his career that began with 1971's self-titled debut. Speed of the Sound of Loneliness was particularly poignant, a prime example of Prine's ability to lyrically convey true depth in relationships. Please Don't Bury Me was an upbeat romp. Of course, it's hard for a song that includes the line "Give my stomach to Milwaukee if they run out of beer" not to elicit some good feelings. In fact, its jubilance caused one couple to dance near the side of the stage - until security broke it up. Imagine going to a concert and dancing breaks out.
Throughout the show, the crowd maintained a consistent energy, and "Ooouu" and "Wooo" and sundry other call outs could be heard, but undoubtedly one of the most inappropriately timed yells of gleeful approval — arguably in concert history — came during the song Six O' Clock News. After Prine solemnly sang the line "The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o'clock news His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes," one of the night's consistent yellers let go with a "Wooooo."
Prine often gave back story to his songs. For example, Souvenirs was his mother's favorite song. He told of how as a 12-year-old he would help a friend deliver papers. On the route was a nursing home, and he was struck how some of its residents had no visitors, how they seemingly imagined these stranger boys to be their grandchildren. Even as a child, he was aware of their loneliness. Thus, a seed that would later become Hello In There was born. In the intro, Prine joked that he was now elderly like the people in the song.
He also explained how he had enough beer in him to get the gumption to perform at a Thursday open mic night at a Chicago bar over 40 years ago. It was his first time he played in public; he did Angel From Montgomery, Hello in There, and Sam Stone. The crowd, he recalled, didn't say anything, and he assumed they didn't like him. Obviously, that wasn't the case. Prine played all three of those classics Friday night, but the audience responded with gratitude and not surprise. Perhaps the awe of hearing such songwriting still remains for fans, but there is no longer an element of surprise with Prine. His place in American songwriting history is well established; his characters and stories are timeless.
Not all of the evening was reflective and low key. I Ain't Hurtin' Nobody had a slower, more deliberate bluesy feel with a prominent bass line. He introduced Fish and Whistle saying "This song was designed and built to make you feel good." From the crowd's response, it accomplished its goal. One of the evening's highlights was Bear Creek Blues, a rockabilly song that sounded like it was straight out of Sun Studios circa 1956. The song was a perfect example of the effective interplay between Prine and his fellow musicians, guitarist Jason Wilbur and bassist David Jacques. Wilbur was flawless throughout, playing electric, acoustic, slide, and even harmonica. He knew when to come in, when to add atmosphere, and when to solo. Jacques was similarly competent. Looking much like Mick Fleetwood, he played electric and upright bass with a style that was both relaxed and effective.
Dear Abby was a crowd favorite, and Lake Marie (Standing By Peaceful Waters) seemed particularly spirited. Show opener Sara Watkins stood in for Iris DeMent on In Spite of Ourselves and stayed on stage for The Late John Garfield Blues, adding some evocative fiddle playing and vocals. Watkins, herself, performed a fine and well-received opening set that moved effortlessly from bluegrass to slow, intimate ballads, proving she is capable of handling both a hoedown and a more traditional pop sound. Her set included a recent song she co-wrote with Jon Foreman called Miss My Kisses and the Stone Ponies' old hit Different Drum, but her self-penned My Friend off her 2009 solo debut was the highlight, offering a delicate yet assured hopefulness. Her voice is innocent yet knowing, emotive but never forced.
Watkins performed with her brother Sean (making up 2/3 of Nickle Creek), and they — along with Prine's brother Billy — appeared on stage for the finale Paradise. The song about Kentucky was the perfect way to close the show. As Prine said, with two sets of siblings on stage, it was like a family reunion. More accurately, a family reunion for over 2,500.
The show just confirmed what followers already know; Prine is an American treasure, a songwriter who respectfully tells stories about characters that are often flawed but not as ordinary as they seem. His narrators are never condescending to the songs' characters. Did the show convert some? That's hard to say. Younger hipsters may believe the best current acts are younger bands steeped in self-imposed irony and pseudo cleverness; they may not see what remains so relevant about Prine. Odds are when they're a little older, they will delve into Prine's songs and see the imagery and poetry that make his catalogue so treasured by so many.
Throughout the evening, Prine smiled and seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. Then again, can you blame him? His songs have been impacting people's lives for nearly four decades. That's a legacy anybody can smile about.