Everybody sings about falling in love, or about the heartbreak after love ends, but few American songwriters have explored the incommunicable mysteries of life within the weird bubble of long-term romantic commitment as consistently, wisely, or hilariously as John Prine, a guy with such an insatiable passion for marriage that he’s now on his third.
And so, Prine kicked off his Friday night show at the Northrop Auditorium with a suitably thematic twofer. First “Love Love Love,” which offers this concise summation of Prine’s chief lyrical concern: “Nobody ever understands/ All the things that go/ Between a woman and a man.” He then sang the praises of the “Glory of True Love,” compared to which “Old Faithful’s just a fountain,” though its nuances were overwhelmed by the burst of cheers that greeted a throwaway line about “dinner in St. Paul.”
His eyes perpetually smiling, Prine was a stout block of aged, formal geniality in a dark suit. His voice, roughed up some by cancer in the late ‘90s, now boasts deeper creases for his melodies to groove along than the marbled yelps of his youth, and he shuffled a stiff-legged little jig toward the close of his two-hour set of 22 songs. Also wearing suits was a four-piece backing band that consisted of guitarist Jason Wilber, drummer Kenneth Blevins, bassist Dave Jacques, and Pat McLaughlin on occasional guitar but mostly “beating the mandolin into submission before your very eyes,” as Prine unhyperbolically put it.
It’s tempting to say Prine’s songs have aged well, but maybe it’s more that he just keeps growing into them. Now 70, Prine hasn’t released an album of new material since he was in his fifties – Fair & Square, a 2005 collection he sampled plenty on Friday. But as he reached back deeper into his catalog, all the way to his 1971 self-titled debut, the songs proved not just durable, but written from a perspective seemingly beyond their creator’s years; Prine was expressing mature regret and dispensing accrued wisdom long before hit his thirties. After all, his most famous song begins “I am an old woman,” and he came up with that at 25.
That line’s from “Angel from Montgomery,” of course, a yearning for escape and romance voiced from within the airless confines of a marriage whose partners “got nothin’ to say,” adorned at the Northrop by a lovely Wilber slide part. Prine introduced another oldie about oldies, “Hello in There,” as “probably the prettiest song I ever wrote.” To sing in the character of half of a pair of neglected married seniors once seemed like a masterful exercise in empathy; now when Prine gets to the line “old people just grow lonesome,” he looks the part.
But this is Prine, so there were wisecracks too. He introduced the sardonic Vietnam era singalong “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” as “a song we took out of retirement last year – seeing how things turned out we kept it around,” dedicating its skewering of sham patriots and false Christians to “our new Fuhrer, Adolf Benito Trumpolini.”
A more sentimental dedication followed not long after, as Prine sang “Souvenirs” in honor of his buddy, the late Chicago songwriter Steve Goodman. “Steve and I sang this song together in 1972 at the Walker Center,” Prine recalled. “I think it was our first show outside of Chicago. You were so good to us that we’ve been coming back ever since.”
Prine wasn’t especially gabby Friday night, though he did greet shouts of “I love you” from a beered up (or maybe just naturally under-inhibited) crowd with “Thank you, it’s good to be loved,” and he explained that “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” was written with McLaughlin hastily on a Tuesday morning so they could break in time for lunch – “Tuesday was meatloaf day in Nashville.”
The band left Prine alone for a pair of solo acoustic numbers from his 1991 album The Missing Years – the nostalgic “Way Back When” and the carnivalesque “The Sins of Memphisto.” The latter’s always struck me (maybe only me) as something like Dylan’s “Desolation Row” told with a happy ending – unlike his more somber peers, Prine’s inspired rather than daunted by life’s absurdity. Ever the pro, he left appropriate space for laughter after couplets like “Sally used to play with her hula hoops/ Now she tells her problems to therapy groups.”
Openers Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell then joined Prine, with Williams handling the Iris DeMent part on the duet “In Spite of Ourselves,” Prine’s finest celebration of happily married irascibility, and taking a verse on the subtly caustic “Unwed Fathers” (“They run like water”). For his part, Campbell is one hell of a fiddle player. Williams and Campbell left, and Prine started “Sam Stone,” his eulogy for a Vietnam vet turned dead junkie, unaccompanied, the band slowly slipping in behind him to add their own atmospheric accents.
With everyone back onstage, we’d reached climax of every Prine show, the inevitable “Lake Marie,” his most epic, comic, romantic, poetic attempt to sketch a tale of two people trying to endure love together. The lyric crosscuts between the unfolding of young love and the crumbling of a marriage, begins with an old Native American folktale and sidetracks into a televised crime scene, breaks down into the lyrics of “Louie Louie” and (at the Northrop) Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.” It’s as though there’s no way to tell this story but in contrasting images, colorful tangents, marooned punchlines, chalk outlines of emotion.
Audiences have come to ritually seize onto two great lyrical moments in “Lake Marie” – the part where Prine smacks his lips over the memory of some grilled sausages “sss-izzlin’” and his shouted answer to the question of what blood looks in black-and-white video: “Shadows!” But my own favorite bit is when Prine sings “The wind was blowing, especially through her hair” – a line that’s one comma and an “especially” away from the dullest pop cliché, that blossoms with those additions into such a rich evocation of memory we feel the truth of the story without ever quite understanding why.
The crowd: On the older side, highly prone to shouting song requests, and apparently unable to dim the displays on their cell phones.
Overheard in the crowd: “Play what you want!” yelled some fellow (not me!) justifiably exasperated with all the requests.
Critics’ bias: The first Prine LP I ever heard was The Missing Years in my early twenties and I was hooked. I’m never not in the mood to listen to him. Also, a downpour sent me running for cover just as Prine started singing at Eaux Claires this year, so I wasn’t about to miss this.
Random notebook dump: Brilliant as he is, Prine could have found himself with little more than a cultish following like so many great ‘70s-spawned singer-songwriters. Instead, his craft and sensibility have influenced crafty, sensible Nashville songwriters like Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, and Justin Vernon – whose high lonesome wail and cryptic poeticism feel further away from Prine’s scuffed aphorisms and conversational gruffness than Eau Claire is from Chicago – threw a helluva tribute to the man at his festival this summer.
Love Love Love
Glory of True Love
Taking a Walk
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Six O’Clock News
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Hello in There
Christmas in Prison
Daddy’s Little Pumpkin
Crooked Piece of Time
Angel from Montgomery
Way Back Then
The Sins of Memphisto
Fish and Whistle
With Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell
In Spite of Ourselves