John Prine At Radio City Music Hall, Friday, April 13th, 2018, Reviewed
“It’s an understatement to say I’m glad to be here,” John Prine, the great 71 year old Mid-Western folk singer told us Friday night. And since this was the release concert for The Tree Of Forgiveness, his first album of new material in 13 years, following two bouts with cancer, it is easy to believe him. But even if you’ve heard it, been there, by the end of the concert, when he brings out his eldest son and his wife, the wonderful sense of having experienced something special was indelible. So many moments, and here is another: Brandi Carlile literally jumping up and down with joy during her duet with John on “In Spite Of Ourselves” is one of those things you want to bottle up in your memory banks for a long time to come -and I am not much of a Brandi fan. Or a Sturgill Simpson fan either, though his one hour solo acoustic set with a tempremental old guitar his only companion, was a mindbender of epic proportions. Or even Prine himself. I’ve always considered Prine highly overrated, and an appearance on Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle” a number of years ago, so boring I was falling asleep (though that was mostly motormouth Costello’s fault) didn’t help, and would have probably passed on Friday’s gig, but both singles I’d heard off The Tree Of Forgiveness changed my mind.
The first single, “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door,” worth the price of the nights admission if only for the George Jones reference, is the second song of the night and if the first song, the classic “Six O’Clock News,” wasn’t enough, it would have made it enough. “Six O’Clock News” is why Dylan called Prine Proustian, though he isn’t anything of the sort. Proust is about the smallest of details, Prine is about juxtapositioning and stories where the implied becomes the clear. “Six O’Clock News,” is the story of a one night stand that ended in the birth of a son, and then ended with an early death, but the story is adjacent to a come on chorus that seems to exist elsewhere. It is a perfect song, though as language much closer to Nabokov than Proust or even Chekov. He sort of wiped the smile from your face before putting it back on: Prine is a master of that, the songs are usually pretty downbeat as he noted “most of my songs start in a major key and then somebody dies and they change to a minor key”. Prine has written some of the most depressing songs ever, try the vet junkie story “Sam Stone,” he does in a solo spotlight with his crack band taking a backseat. Makes you think there is nothing much worth living for, though The Tree Of Forgiveness suggests otherwise, Prine is a sentimentalist who keeps his eyes on how the personal becomes the dreadful.
The 90 minute set was preceded by an hour of solo Sturgill Simpson. I saw Sturgill with a band a coupla years ago at an Americana festival at Lincoln Center and wasn’t particularly impressed… there is something too emotive for me, he pours it on too much and, no, he isn’t buddy Chris Stapleton, he ain’t that deep, but he never sings what he can oversing, and he is so self serving he has the nerve to sell us on him only having only four people who will talk to him in Nashville. Absolutely untrue, of course. An hour is pretty rough given the circumstances, and Sturgill claimed to be intimidated by the size of the stage, and hadn’t performed live since October, but he was excellent. Covering everyone from the Bee Gees to Keith Whitley., and with a strong brace of originals, Sturgill made a believer, though Prine should have started the evening at 7pm, given Sturgill half an hour and Brandi half an hour, and had us out of there by 10. But that’s about my only regret.
Both Sturgill but especially John were sublime. John, who in 1974 had watched Bette Midler encore with his “Hello In There,” at this very venue from the upper balcony and sworn he’d headline, was crossing one off his bucket list. It was exciting to share it with him in a set which might have peaked with his Brandi Carlile four song duet, yet still saw no serious dip in quality. The new songs were great, the album is one of the best of the year, a clear eyed and joyful (OK -not always joyful) straightforward set of excellent songs, and they were all great on stage. His older material took the stops you’d expect, the “Angel Of Montgomery” and “Lake Marie” tops of the catalog, but nothing really slackened the pace or the quality in the slightest. At 71 years of age, Prine is an everyman superstar, so comfortable in his life his comfort and pleasures are visible on his face and in his singing. The cracks in his voice are those he has earned, and the stories he is telling is not those of the finishing end of a popstars life, but the creative aging of a clear eyed man as willing to crack that a song has more verses in a song than Trump does original members of his cabinet, as to crack that his wife always tells him to take his fishing pole when he goes swimming.
The night ended with Prine’s “When I Get To Heaven” where he wants to shake God’s hand before starting a rock band and smoke a cigarette (no more worries about cancer!) nine miles long , tell his atheist daddy that daddy was wrong, and open a nightclub called “The Tree Of Forgiveness” where even critics (“those syphilitic parasitics” -apparently he dislikes us more than he dislikes the Trump administration or murderers or both) are welcome. Not quite a benediction and we didn’t get an encore, but I forgive him because the forgiveness tree begins with the best show of the year,