The man of the night moseyed around stage stiff-legged, unassuredly, a tad twitchy. When he spoke, he did so a bit nervously, eyes darting about, unable to settle his hands. He wore a sharp suit, all black and with the best of intentions, but ended up looking like an antebellum Kim Jong-Il. But that was just John Prine’s erudite goofiness shining through. The man’s one of the most enduringly likeable musical geniuses since the advent of recorded sound, and he certainly didn’t do anything to tarnish that reputation last Friday.
After Memphian and Prine collaborator Keith Sykes finished a five-song opening set full of ruralized jazz chords and occasionally plagiarized one-liners (“You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think” is a Dorothy Parker quip, Sykes), Prine took to stage, backed only by bass and guitar, for a jaunty take on “Spanish Daydream” and a perfectly mumbled run through of “Crooked Piece of Time.”
His third song, another from his debut album, saw a backing guitarist take a tasteful few notes to a melodica while the bassist worked a bow on his upright bass for “Six O’Clock News,” one of John Prine’s most beautifully desolate and unceasingly ironic songs.
Now, I’ve listened to that track dozens of times — and it was as beautiful as ever — but upon seeing the aging man croak up the lyrics he wrote as a kid, now with years upon years of wisdom at his back, the relatively raucous crowd calmed to an awed stillness and, upon the last chord, joined in a communal shudder to rub down their goose bumps.
It was the highlight of the night and exemplified one of the consistent wonders of John Prine. He can draw out legitimate physical reactions from even the most reserved of listeners, not using any epic grandiosity tailor-made to elicit a chill, but employing little more than cowboy chords and economic language. In fact, this largely unsentimental music critic finally realized the etymology of “tug at the heartstrings” during the song with the wholly unfamiliar sensation of something tangling all the tendrils in my chest.
Maybe not all reactions were as accidentally sublime, though. While the infamous John Prine Whistler of 2008 (bit.ly/prinewhistler) was gratefully absent, his protege, an interpretive dancer who would “throw [his] hands in the air” during “Bruised Orange,” treated the show like a midnight showing of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” even reeling in an imaginary fish and whistling during “Fish and Whistle.”
But almost no amount of idiocy can distract from a live John Prine show. Playing a two-hour set of his best, including “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” “Sam Stone,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Angel From Montgomery” (maybe his single greatest) and ending at 11 p.m. with “Paradise,” it was as good as a show gets: a genius, playing his finest and doing it well for a loving audience.