John Prine / Iris DeMent – Olympia Theatre (Dublin, Ireland)
Dublin’s old Olympia Theatre isn’t a place you’d normally picture as a venue for country music. With its exclusive boxes overlooking the stage and ornate Victorian decorations, it’s probably more suited to an opera. Despite this, it’s a good place for singers such as John Prine and Iris DeMent, who want to retain some kind of intimate atmosphere. Despite the alarmingly high price of the tickets, the venue is full tonight, the punters waiting expectantly to welcome back some old friends who’ve been away for awhile.
DeMent opens with old favorites “Sweet Is The Melody” and “These Hills”, but all is not right. Her voice is too high up in the mix and she looks a little lost standing there with just her guitar all alone on the huge stage. After performing “Let The Mystery Be”, she sits down behind an impressive black grand piano further back on the stage. She instantly looks more comfortable. She introduces a new song about “reading lots of self-help books but not getting helped.” There’s a sharpness, a directness in her voice that cuts through the sentimentality too many country singers indulge in. Even though she claims she’s “not in a love frame of mind,” she performs a slow version of Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s The Way Love Goes”.
When she returns to her guitar, she treats us to “Mama’s Opry”. It’s such a jolly old thing that in anyone else’s hands, it would be almost corny, but that voice pulls it off, making it warm and irresistible. For an encore, she performs “Our Town” before leaving again to thunderous applause. It’s nice to know we’ll probably be seeing her again before the end of the evening.
“It’s good to be back in Dublin and also working,” Prine tells us, obviously referring to his recent struggle with cancer. You’d certainly never know from looking at him that he had been ill; with the help of a double bass and a few guitars, he powerhouses his way through a frantic rock ‘n’ roll opener. He soon settles down into a more familiar pace, with songs about broken old men (“Sam Spade”), love affairs gone awry (“All The Best”) and dysfunctional families (“Unwed Fathers”).
Quite similar in style to Guy Clark, he’s at his best when he’s storytelling. On the lighter side, there’s “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian”, a song he claims he wrote for Dean Martin. It’s full of sexual innuendo blended into mock Hawaiian which I wouldn’t even attempt to transcribe. He wears a mischievous smile throughout the song, like a kid getting away with something he knows he shouldn’t. He informs us it isn’t easy singing in two languages, stating that only he and Celine Dion can do it.
There’s loud applause when he invites DeMent back out to perform duets from his latest album. Surprisingly, this part of the show is disappointing. Basically, it’s the songs. They’re novelties, but one or two humorous lines doesn’t make a good song. You can’t help but wish Prine had been more selective in his choice of duets to cover. It seems such a waste to hear DeMent singing material as mediocre as “Milwaukee, Here I Come” and “When Two Worlds Collide”. Prine’s own tune, “In Spite Of Ourselves”, is slightly better, but it’s still a relief when Prine returns to his own set.
Many of the songs Prine performs, such as “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” and “Fish And Whistle”, are well-known enough for much of the crowd to join in with the chorus, but a lesser-known song closes the set. “Lake Marie” (from his 1995 album Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings) is probably the finest he has played all evening, stunning as it rises to a frenzied finish, leaving the crowd demanding his return. For the encore, his wife Fiona comes out onstage to join him on “‘Til A Tear Becomes A Rose”. The cheers he receives at the end of the show would be enough to convince him he’s welcome to come back anytime.