John Prine is one of the quintessential American singer songwriters of this (or any) generation. With a career spanning 5 decades, he might be forgiven for taking it easy as he enters his 70’s but that’s not really John Prine. His latest album The Tree of Forgiveness might be one the best things he’s written and recorded in a long time. All of his deftness with lyrics and tunes are present, as is his warm, quirky sense of humour. The deep gravel in his voice, partly a result of his treatment and recovery from cancer in the 1980s and again in 2013, has become more pronounced as he gets older and the newer songs seem to be written to compliment this.
A sold-out Ulster hall on a Sunday night in Belfast is the venue this evening and the instructions are clear – 7.30 sharp start, no support. 7.30 on the dot – Prine and his band take to the stage in matching dark suits, and he launches into the guitar intro to “Six O’Clock News”. This opens in complete silence and ends in thunderous applause.
He follows this with “I’m Knocking On Your Screen-Door” from the new album and he tells the audience upfront that we’re going to get some of the new songs and a lot of the older ones. My initial impression is that we’re going to get a well-rehearsed and slick country revue-type show tonight; but Prine’s voice, and his sharp, often witty lyrics quickly dispel this notion. A detour into a true 60’s/70’s protest song like “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” reminds me of how relevant Vietnam-era writing remains in the present day.
“Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967” (Crazy Bone) is one of the best tracks on the new album and comes over as a charming recollection of an America long since gone; one of farmer’s daughters, roller rinks and slicked-back Brylcreemed hair. Prine throws in some scatting, helpfully pointing out that it makes him sound like Fred Flintstone meets Mel Tormé. “Grandpa Was A Carpenter” is performed as an upbeat number, and Prine introduces us to the band before launching into one of his biggest hits, “Hello In There” which remains a beautiful and bittersweet musing on the nature of aging. It’s worth mentioning the band; Jason Wilber on guitar and harmonica, Fats Kaplin on lap steel, mandolin and fiddle, Bryan Owings on drums, and Dave Jacques on electric and double bass. Great musicians all, and some lovely playing from each of them tonight.
“Boundless Love” is introduced as being written for his wife of the past 23 years – Fiona, with Prine noting “I guess I looked like something needed fixing” before commenting “I’m still a work in progress.” This is simple and tender and contains the marvellous line “Sometimes my ol’ heart is like a washing machine – it bounces around ’til my soul comes clean..” Prine dedicates what he calls the prettiest song on his new album (“Summer’s End”) to Dermot and Ursula who are somewhere in the audience.
A big walking bass line and tremelo laden guitar takes us into “Ain’t Hurting Nobody”, followed by a pretty faithful rendition of “Angel From Montgomery”. After this, the band troop off stage and it’s just us, John Prine, and an acoustic guitar for the next half an hour.
He kicks off with “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and follows this with the sheer poetry of “Souvenirs”. “The Lonesome Friends of Science” takes in the humiliation of the planet Pluto at the hands of astronomers. It’s obvious as he plays “Please Don’t Bury Me” that Prine is having fun with this and is getting positive feedback from the crowd. He rounds out his acoustic set with “Donald and Lynda”, “No Ordinary Blue”and “Sam Stone”.
The band return and we get “God Only Knows” from the current record and a great version of “Lake Marie” (from one of my favourite albums, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings) – a big tune with catchy chorus, snappy guitar licks and a few spoken word verses. Prine throws in some quirky dance steps before leaving the stage and letting the band take this home. It’s a big finish and the crowd are on their feet, stamping, clapping, and demanding one more song. We get two more – the new, foot-tapping and extremely irreverent “When I Get to Heaven”. Prine closes the show out by inviting his wife onto stage to duet on “Paradise”.
An amazing performer with an extensive back catalogue of superb songs, backed by some consummate musicians and touring a cracking new album. Sometimes everything comes together perfectly, in one place and at one time; this was one of those rare occasions. Prine shows no signs of slowing up or letting up – long may it continue.