John Prine: The veteran singer-songwriter was in fine form at a recent State Theatre gig in Ithaca.
Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek opened the show with a fiddle, guitar, mandolin and a light, buttery-warm voice reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Leigh Nash. Her young voice was a lovely complement to Prine’s when she later returned at the end of the evening for Prine’s encore performance of the quirky love-song duet, “In Spite of Ourselves.”
Prine took the stage around 9, with sparkling eyes, a jolly smile and short, salt-and-pepper hair. Dressed all in black, he looked almost like a priest amid the theater’s gothic, church-like architecture. Greeted at once by thunderous applause, Prine smiled a “hello out there” to the crowd, swept up his guitar and began plucking the peppy “Spanish Pipedream” from his eponymous 1971 debut album. He was flanked with suit-clad guitarist Jason Wilber and upright bassist Dave Jacques, who, between them, also handled harmonica, steel guitar and mandolin throughout the show. “Plant a little garden/ eat a lot of peaches/ try and find Jesus on your own,” the devoted congregation joyously sang along to the chorus of the aforementioned song.
The audience was buzzing with excitement and booze. They cheered and whistled after every song; some cried out, “I love you, John!” and one woman yelled, “John, I baked you an apple pie!” On two of the upbeat numbers— “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” from his 1973 album Sweet Revenge and “Bear Creek Blues” off of 2005’s Fair and Square—Prine took a wide, pigeon-toed stance, his left knee quivering in an Elvis-esque wobble as he strummed fervently, a perfectly legal smile perpetually on his face.
A reverent hush, however, befell the crowd during ballads such as “Souvenirs,” which he dedicated to the late Steve Goodman, and the much-covered, prayerful classic “Angel From Montgomery,” also from his debut album. The backup bowed out, leaving Prine solo for “Sins of Memphisto,” “Bruised Orange,” “Please Don’t Bury Me,” “That’s the Way the World Goes Round,” and “Dear Abby.” Harmonica and upright bass returned during the story of “Sam Stone” and the audience hummed along: “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios, hmmm…”
It was this song that got Prine his start in the late 1960s when he was still delivering mail in Maywood, Ill. Before an open mike—in response to the challenge, “You think you can do better?”—Prine got up and played “Sam Stone,” bringing tears to the eyes of Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert, who was among the audience that night.
Nearly 40 years and 20 records later, Prine’s voice has a huskiness to it now—likely due not only to age but to his battle with neck cancer and surgery in 1998. Nevertheless, his voice and his stage presence remained strong and steady at Ithaca. The poignant anthem of aging and loneliness “Hello In There” resonated with and throughout the audience—“You know that old trees just grow stronger/ and old riverssss…grow wilder every day”—the gentle hissing hinted their singing along.
The second hour of Prine’s set—just a sampling of his lyrical legacy— was coming to a close, but Prine had promised a happy ending earlier in the night. “We’re gonna start sad and work our way up,” he’d explained after the lyrically dismal “Six O’Clock News.” And he didn’t disappoint. Via the peaceful waters of “Lake Marie,” for the last song of the night, Prine led his people to “Paradise.”