Angel from Chicago
To my mind, John Prine is one of the best American songwriters over the last 35 years. His work can have an audience laughing, angry and teary-eyed, sometimes within the framework of a single song.
This week his voice, never all that smooth, was a little rough and guttural, a condition for which he apologized, blaming years of acid-reflux disease. He had an operation for throat cancer a few years ago, and the story goes that when doctors learned he was a singer, they hesitated going in for fear they’d ruin his singing voice.
“You ever heard me sing?” Prine reportedly asked the doctors, before telling them to do the surgery.
The Chicago-born troubadour played close to three hours to a nearly full house in Laxson Auditorium Sept. 21, and by the end he had the crowd in his hand. He smiled and joked and seemed to genuinely enjoy himself and what he was doing on stage.
Silver-haired and portly and looking a bit like Charles Bronson in his later years, the black-clad singer pulled out a lot of old tunes and mixed in a few new ones, including, “Just when you got the world off your back, some hot-shot from Texas starts a war in Iraq.”
He opened with what could be considered a signature song, “Spanish Pipe Dream,” that has the chorus “Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper,/ Go to the country, build you a home,/ Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,/ Try and find Jesus on your own.”
His second song, one he said he’d “stuffed and hung over the fireplace” long ago, never thinking he’d have to pull it out again, was hauled down and brought out by the request of the “draft-dodger in the White House.” And, as was inevitable for the times in which we live, he played it, much to the delight of the decidedly liberal audience: “But your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore,/ it’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war,/ Jesus don’t like killin’ no matter what the reason’s for,/ and your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore.”
Prine was joined on stage by two fine accompanying musicians, Jason, “Shorty” Wilber on guitar and mandolin and David Jakes on bass.
But he shone brightest when playing solo and hit his stride, his voice twanging beautifully and guitar picking impeccable, when he sang “Angel from Montgomery,” a song, once recorded by Bonnie Raitt, that can make a grown man cry.
Prine’s songs are as clever, funny, catchy (they rattle around in your head the next day) simple and yet somehow complex. But most of all they are sincere as their author. He means what he writes.
He told stories between songs, including ones about his father, William, who was born in Kentucky before moving to Chicago and having three sons.
“We were raised like we’d be moving to Kentucky some day,” Prine recalled, remembering his father fondly.
For the final song of his encore, he played the nostalgic and sad “Paradise.”
“When I was a child, my family would travel,/ To western Kentucky, where my parents were born,/ And there’s a backward old town that’s often remembered,/ So many times that my memories are worn./ And daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,/ Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay,/ Well I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in askin',/ Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
And earlier, when he played his ode to old people, “Hello in There,” he said, “I love you Mom,” at the end. It wasn’t hokey or contrived; it was heartfelt.
Opening the show was New Orleans-born Mary Gauther, who is sort of a female Prine writing songs about cigarettes and kitchenettes and living under a bridge next to a golf course. She admitted early on, “As you can tell, I’ve listened to a few John Prine songs.”
She joined her mentor on stage at the end to sing harmony on "Paradise."