John Prine. At the Arlington Theatre, Saturday, October 28.
Reviewed by Derek Svennungsen
If Bob Dylan is roots music’s king (and he is), and Lucinda Williams is the queen (and she may be), then John Prine is the royal court’s jester. He’s the funny-looking, croak-voiced joker whose job it is to entertain, moralize, and satirize all at the same time.
And when you’re in an audience watching this 60-year-old roll through his repertoire of songs that are at one moment heart-breaking and the next ebullient, you feel like the kingdom would be just fine, if not a good sight better, if he were running the show.
After a menial opening from Jim James of My Morning Jacket “fame” — a bit of a stretch if you ask me — Prine and his two bandmates, all clad in sharp suits, dove into 35 years’ worth of material. Prine’s songs, as his fans know, are all carved from his glorious, inexhaustible rock style. “Hello in There” from 1972 coheres perfectly with 2005’s “Taking a Walk,” which is in sonic cahoots with 1991’s “Love & Happiness.” And there is just so much comfort in Prine’s sound; each song is a cocoon, a refuge.
To the appreciative crowd’s delight, Prine jigged a couple of times. He sang everyone’s personal favorites (including my three-year-old son’s, a DeMent-less “In Spite of Ourselves”) and deadpanned his way through nearly two hours of anti-classic classics. His gravelly voice — Prine overcame throat cancer — stamped every lyric and every song with authority and authenticity. Unlike Dylan’s lyrical abstruseness or Williams’s dourness, Prine, in his jester’s role, encouraged us to celebrate life’s absurdities and revel in both the pain and joy. And for that, he earned a standing ovation.
More than anything, what is obvious in watching John Prine perform is that he was absolutely born to play his music for all of us. The disheveled codger once again pulled off the performer’s trifecta, leaving his audience entertained, moved, and happy to have paid lots of money for the tickets. To those not in attendance, I can only hope that you had some life-or-death situation that occupied you, and I can only hope that you handled it with a laugh and a rhyme. As John would.