b Papa Dog's Blog: John Prine at the Fillmore, 16/05/05

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

John Prine at the Fillmore, 16/05/05

I’ve talked a couple-few times – okay, a bunch of times – herein about The Clancy Brothers and the central place they occupied in my early awareness of music. I’ve said less about John Prine, who came along a little later but was no less a fixture in my childhood. My brother, almost eight years my senior, acquired Prine’s first three albums in the early 1970s, and they became staples of his pizza nights and poker parties. At eight or nine or ten years old, there could be no greater aspiration for me than to be permitted to hang around with my big brother and his friends while they drank beer and bullshat and listened to John Prine, Cheech and Chong, Harry Chapin, or whatever else happened to be on the turntable. It was Prine who made the largest and most lasting impression. Mama Pirate too has followed John Prine’s music since childhood. Last night we left our children in the care of our spouses and met up at The Fillmore to play hooky from home on a school night and see what a John Prine show looks like in 2005.

In some ways, it’s not substantially different from the last time I saw him live, which would have been about five years ago. He still has the same two sidemen – guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jason Wilber, who looked like a seventeen-year-old prodigy the first time I saw him working with Prine at the Fleadh Festival in 1999 and who doesn’t seem to have aged more than a week or two since, and bassist Dave Jacques who, no getting around it, is a bald man with a ponytail. With his Colonel Sanders tie and startled-hedgehog hair, some extra pounds and a set of teeth that want to do a beaver thing when he grins (as he frequently does), he bore little resemblance to the denim-clad malcontent posing on the cover of Sweet Revenge. Mama Pirate said he looked like a muppet. It seemed apt. It’s unsurprising that he should be showing a little mileage, though; he's been through some changes in the last decade, becoming a father even later in life than I did and then suffering a series of health tribulations including installation of a new titanium hip and a fight with cancer that ended in the removal of part of his neck. I had heard about the cancer, but the bit about the hip replacement caught me off guard. It seems like such a – well, old person thing. Looking around the ballroom, though, he seemed the right guitar hero for this AARP-ready crowd. Mama Pirate and I were among the youngest people there.*

The main change, though, was a shift in the tone of his live material. Prine has a deep catalogue to pull from, but I’ve seen enough of his concerts over the years to have a pretty goods idea of what the standards are. This time around he surprised me by not just singing songs I’d never before heard him do live, but by representing albums that had previously gone (in my experience) untouched. Most tellingly, the second song of the night came from his very first album: Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore. If you’ve never heard it, you pretty much have the idea from the title. Afterwards, Prine said, “I thought I’d retired that song back in 1978. I had it stuffed and mounted and hanging on the mantel. I never thought I’d have to sing it again in my lifetime, but I started singing it again about a year ago because of a special request. The request was from the President of the United States. It wasn’t a formal request…but he was asking for it.” You can imagine how gleefully that was received by a Bay Area crowd. I’d be interested to learn how it goes over when he plays Texas, though.

Playing “Flag Decal” early was a typically canny move, giving notice that what goes around has come around, and restoring a relevant context to his early songs of uniquely gentle social protest, written in the thick of the Vietnam War. He also performed several songs from his new album, one of which in particular expresses Prine’s views on The Great Pretender pretty plainly: “…when you’re feeling your freedom/And the world’s off your back/Some cowboy from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq.” Again, I’m guessing that particular couplet got a much bigger cheer in San Francisco than it does in Houston. At another point, he recast a key line from Illegal Smile, a love song to benign dope smoking that’s really pretty innocent politically. As originally written, the line in question was “I went to court and the judge’s name was Hoffman” – a then-topical reference to Chicago Seven judge Julius Hoffman. Prine sang it last night as “I went to court and the judge’s name was Ashcroft.” It really nailed the strange sense that we’ve somehow come full circle in 35 years.

The show as a whole was a great lesson in how a small number of overt gestures – “Flag Decal,” “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” the Ashcroft reference – can bring out meanings in songs that might not otherwise have seemed to be there. Take Sweet Revenge, for example, which I’d never before heard him perform live. When that song first came out I suppose it must have sounded like he was singing about Nixon and his “silent majority” – I can’t say that for certain because I was too young to think about it in those terms at the time. But last night there was no doubt that he was singing the here and now.

That’s not to say it was all politics and rhetoric, of course. A Prine show’s not like that…he moves around, from sad to sweet to funny, and however outraged he may be by the state of the world today, he never seems angry. Disappointed would be more the word. Incredulous, perhaps. And that as may be, he never forgets the primary goal, which is to have a good time. The high point in that regard was the surprise appearance of Bonnie Raitt, who showed up to sing the Prine song she famously covered, Angel from Montgomery. I can’t say I’ve really ever been a big fan, but god damn, she does that song justice. When she got to the bit about “How the hell can a person/Go to work in the morning/And come home in the evening/And have nothing to say” I honestly got goosebumps.

Then there was Prine’s intro to All the Best: “This is a handy song to have in your back pocket in case of emergency. Like if you’re invited to your ex’s wedding and you’re asked to sing.” In an uncharacteristically spot-on review, Joel Selvin of the Chronicle said of Prine’s new album: “As easygoing and natural as these songs are, they barely seem to have been written at all. They sound like songs he’s always sung, songs that have always been there, songs that he remembered rather than wrote. They sound as if they came out of him fully formed, rhyming only coincidentally. They are songs like a table is a table, square and stable in a way that draws no attention to the details of their construction.” “All the Best,” which predates the album in question by a decade, is a perfect example of this observation. It opens with a series of lines and rhymes so simple and so inevitable that it seems they couldn’t possibly be written any other way: “I wish you love and happiness/I guess I wish you all the best/I wish you don’t do like I do/And ever fall in love with someone like you/’Cause if I felt just like you did/You’d prob’ly walk around the block like a little kid/But kids don’t know/They can only guess/How hard it is to wish you happiness.” It’s perfect, and seemingly effortless.

Late in the show, during one rave-up or another – it might have been the cover of the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek Blues” or maybe the climax of “Lake Louise,” Prine got down and dirty with the guitar, eyes bulging, left foot stomping high. I said to Mama Pirate, “He sure can get down for a man with a titanium hip.”

Well, I’ve gone on at length and I could go on much longer. It was a terrific show and well worth going short on sleep last night. There’s a bunch more I’d like to say about it, but it’s almost 6 p.m., I’m still at work, and oh, baby, we gotta go now.
*One of the few younger people in the vicinity was dancing drunkenly in front of the stage, weaving around and bumping into people. He got bounced. I was glad to see him go, but was kind of ethically torn. Since when is it against the rules to dance at a concert?


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