John Prine – Hoyt Sherman Place (Des Moines, IA)
“Welcome back, John!” shouted one enthusiastic fan in the middle of John Prine’s performance at Des Moines’ recently restored and packed-to-the-rafters Hoyt Sherman Place.
“I never knew he was gone!” responded another. For some fans, the idea of a Prine “comeback” is ludicrous, for he has continued to tour and record after facing a couple of serious challenges: a battle with throat cancer that could have had far greater consequences and has perhaps changed his voice (possibly even for the better), and a bout of either writer’s block or creative inertia that had kept the once prolific Prine from releasing an album of new material for almost a decade.
Instead of fresh Prine, there were stopgaps: anthology, compilation, a live album, a superb collection of classic country duets (including some with opening act Iris DeMent that the duo would reprise a little later in this show). Even as Prine continued to work, it appeared that the title of his last great album — 1991’s The Missing Years, itself something of a comeback — had belatedly proven prophetic.
During a previous Des Moines appearance in April 2004, Prine had thrilled the crowd at the larger Civic Center not only with the cathartic energy of his epic, Springsteenesque performance — a set that lasted more than three hours, as if he were determined to prove he’d rebounded from the cancer with more vitality than ever — but with the introduction of a couple new songs that he promised were from an album soon to come.
The Hoyt Sherman concert was his first since fulfilling that promise, and it raised the ante of triumph. It wasn’t so much that Prine had made a comeback, but that he’s taken his game to a whole new level. Thanks to last year’s Grammy-winning Fair & Square, he was able to perform a lot of recent material that could hold its own with the chestnuts the audience already knew by heart. Any after-effects of recovery — he’d seemed a little stiff and puffy previously — were no longer in evidence. With the approach of his 60th birthday (celebrated on October 10), he looked and sounded like an artist renewed.
Though Prine initially earned renown for the wit and wisdom of his lyrics, his artistry over the years has become more powerfully musical. He joked that he only knows two melodies, but both of them (and more) were consistently enhanced by the backing and harmonies of guitarist/mandolinist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques. On a highlight such as the recent “The Glory Of True Love”, Jacques’ slap acoustic bass, Wilber’s clean electric leads and Prine’s acoustic rhythm guitar channeled the elemental purity of the seminal Sun Records sound.
A newcomer to Prine might have difficulty connecting the dots of his artistic progression. Some of the earliest songs that remain among his best-known, such as “Sam Hill”, “Hello In There” and “Angel From Montgomery”, sound like the work of an artist decades more mature than Prine was when he wrote them in his 20s. Yet it’s a childlike whimsy that makes later fare such as “Fish And Whistle”, “It’s A Big Old Goofy World” and even the recent, bittersweet “Crazy As a Loon” perennially irresistible. Where his performances once relied more heavily on former glories, his current tour finds Prine hitting a new peak.
In addition to serving as Prine’s mid-set duet partner, Iris DeMent showed in her opening set how deeply her fundamentalist church upbringing continues to influence her music. But it’s the tension with worldly doubt, ambivalence and ambiguity that provides the creative dynamic — the vocal quaver to her rock-of-ages piano.