In 2009, Bob Dylan characterized John Prine’s songwriting as “pure Proustian Existentialism…” By this I believe he meant that Prine’s songs reflect memories of an authentic life, one in which existence and experiences form the basis of a person’s character, rather than what gets overlaid later by society. If that is the case, then Dylan hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. John Prine’s authenticity was on brilliant display at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA.
About 9:30pm, fifteen minutes after a thoroughly enjoyable set by Patty Griffin, Prine and his bandmates appeared on the stage of the beautiful Filene Center. Waving rather goofily to the crowd, he took a big swig out of a bottle of water, turned around, and launched into a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever,” a tribute to the great country music icon who passed away earlier this spring. From then through the end of his 18 song set, we were treated to pure John Prine.
Prine was accompanied by his longtime bandmates, Jason Wilber on lead guitar, Dave Jacques on bass and Pat McLaughlin on electric guitar. All accomplished solo artists, it was obvious they had developed the chemistry that comes with playing together for a long time.
Having only seen Prine live one other time, I felt like a bit of an outsider among his adoring fans, who sang along with nearly every song, and gave their hero ten standing ovations by my count. Looking around, his audience definitely skewed older, natural for a man who has been producing great music since the early ‘70s. However, the similarities stopped there. The crowd appeared to be an eclectic mix of diehard country fans, folkies, suburbanites, city dwellers and “country folk.” This surprised me a bit at first, but became obvious why at the end. It is clear Prine’s work transcends the normal boundaries that separate fans of different genres of music. His lyrics speak to the desire in all of us to live an authentic life.
Starting with the lively “Glory of True Love,” the more subdued “Long Monday,” and “Taking a Walk,” Prine explored the different ways in which love can simultaneously provide comfort, spur excitement and plague its victim with unbearable anticipation and rejection. He then moved into other aspects of the human experience including death (the darkly humorous “Please Don’t Bury Me”), family (the amiable tribute to his own grandfather, “Grandpa was a Carpenter”) and the uncontrollable and sometimes unpleasant absurdities of life (“That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round”).
Prine’s voice has grown rougher and more gravelly over the years, partly because of age, surely, but also due to the two bouts with neck and lung cancer he suffered through in 1998 and 2013. Like Johnny Cash, he has a way of sneaking up on a note, slightly out of tune at first, but always getting there in the end. This and the change in his voice actually lend greater weight and poignancy to some of his songs, most notably “Sam Stone,” “Six O’clock News” and “Hello In There.”
I think for his fans, Prine’s music is like pulling out an old comfortable coat. It wraps them in memories of days gone by which, while not always pleasant, brings them comfort. Not all of his songs have this effect, however. Some are jarringly emotional. “Sam Stone” in particular forces the listener into a realization that the ups and downs of life are often punctuated by devastating tragedy. Prine delivered a knock out version of this song, the almost overwhelmingly sad story of a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran who dies of an overdose. The song contains one of his most famous lines, a couplet a friend of mine asserts is the best ever written, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes /Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.” His version stunned the crowd into silence.
Luckily, he didn’t leave us there for long. He ended his set with the weird and spectacular “Lake Marie,” which was my favorite of the night. For his encore he brought out Patty Griffin to help out on a rousing version of “Paradise.”
Patty Griffin is someone whose work I was not too familiar with prior to this concert. It is safe to say I will make haste getting familiar. Mixing folk, blues, country and gospel it is clear she is a very special talent. I generally hate comparing the style of one musician with another, but I could not get it out of my head that she must be the love child of Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin. On some of her more bluesy numbers, such as “There Isn’t One Way” the cadence of her voice came through as very Joplin like, while on songs such as “Made of the Sun,” she had hints of the pure tone of Dolly Parton. It was weird and unique and absolutely mesmerizing. I also have to say a word about her partner on stage, David Pulkingham, whose guitar playing was so good I cannot do it justice here. On occasion it threatened to overwhelm, but never quite did.
Overall, a transcendent night of music!