Live Review: John Prine & support – Ulster Hall, Belfast

He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays
I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies”

Amanda Shires was duetting with John Prine the other night. She’s the up-coming American singer-songwriter and violin player; he’s the two-time Grammy award winning member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame – the country-folk-Americana veteran.

The song was “In Spite of Ourselves”, the title track of his 1999 album of duets with various female folk and alt-country singers. I think he said from the stage it was the only duet he’s ever written. On the album he sings this one with Iris DeMent. In Belfast’s Ulster Hall this night Amanda Shires was the willing accomplice. Willing, and talented, and loaded with just the right amount of quirk to pull the whole thing off.

Prine had shuffled on stage with his band like a pack of anti-Reservoir Dogs, all black suits and ties, armed and dangerous with their mandolins and double bass. The room had lit up when they arrived. The neat rows of seats and the balconies had clapped and cheered and whistled, and that general excitement never went away you know. They started with “Love Love Love” and there was a sense that everybody in the world knew this song – the first song of the night. And as we were singing along with the chorus, and as Pat McLaughlin bent and wound himself round his mandolin, and as 30 years’ worth of an audience’s collective memory of that song rose up in loud appreciation as the song drew to a close, John Prine and his band moved straight on to the next number like there’s no time to waste. The previous three decades had already slipped backstage with nobody noticing.

His words that catch the moment, they bounced easy enough off the stage. He’s over 70 now, and has the scars to prove he took on cancer (twice), and won. His voice was cut uneven, with moderate fraying, but the colour was vibrant, the warmth was still transmitting, right across the expanse of the Ulster Hall. His full-on, hard-hitting verses of strains and tragedies were still as incisive. Indeed the lack of youthful force helped build an idea of the strength needed to come out the other end of injustice, or war, or grimy deprivation. That voice, worn by use and ill health was recognition of what had happened in order for those words to be written, the patina on his songs.

Hello In There” still brought that desperate sadness to the pit of the stomach, with Dave Jacques sawing the weight of the double bass into the song, McLaughlin sparking lighter with the mandolin. But despite the years and the wear and tear, the last line of “Angel From Montgomery” ended on a long, loud kick back. “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go,” he raised his voice at us, he held the stretched notes, he showed me not to rest on my laurels, because he hasn’t.

For a while he was left to run rampant on his own. Wandering between deserted microphones as he played his guitar between verses, standing uncomfortably close to the edge of the stage to hold up his guitar to the crowd. He brought his support back on after a while. Amanda Shires was accompanied by a quiet version of her husband Jason Isbell. An accomplished performer in her own right, Shires has been gifted with her own ample and off-centre flair for song writing. Add on her fiddle playing and her versatile rough-with-the-smooth voice, and it’s clear to anyone who has seen her that she’s a class act on her own. Then when you add her Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter- guitarist husband to the stage, well, that’s a show all on its own.

Something strange happened though in Belfast this night. Shires seemed a bit too small for the stage; the music wasn’t quite big enough. Could it be that the grand talent at the microphone beside her refrained from getting any bigger because this is her show, not his? The people sitting beside us on the balcony (who were great craic incidentally) hadn’t heard of either of them, so perhaps the room wasn’t as in love with them as we were.

That all changed though when the reservoir band came back on, and everyone was utilised to full effect, with a nice emphasis on ensuring Isbell’s guitar was in the mix. Shires was Prine’s duet partner for the crystal clear message behind “Unwed Fathers.” “Someone’s children, out having children,” she sang, “In a grey stone building, all alone.”

Prine’s half speaking, half singing narration held the room on “Lake Marie” as we all listened tight to the story like we hadn’t heard it before, like we’d never repeated that chorus. They built the song up layer by layer up there on stage. They had the double bass firmed up with the drums, while the guitars ran in the same direction on top of that. It got louder and longer and Prine walked to the back of the stage, removed his guitar and started to vaguely shimmy. Suited and booted he was Elvis-like as he semi boogied his way off stage. The audience was ecstatic, standing, clapping, not sitting till he returned for the encore. Three or so encore songs later the audience was louder; was whistling and shouting. We knew he wasn’t coming back on; we had to let him know. And as we spilled out into a chilling April Belfast street we decided we love John Prine that bit more than we did on the way in.