John Prine – Wolf Trap (Vienna, VA)
John Prine had a new one, which is not an everyday occurrence. No one worries too much about the delays, mostly because Prine’s back catalogue is worthy of repeated listening and — for songwriters, at least — deserves years of study. But the fact is that he hasn’t put out an album of new songs since 1995, and he’s usually slow to bring unrecorded works into the concert set list.
At Wolf Trap’s lovely Filene Center amphitheater, though, he was smiling a familiar, pull-my-finger kind of smile. “I wrote this ten days ago,” he said. “It’s still got the wrapper on it.”
Then he began what sounded at first like another one of those typically deft Prine character studies, the sad but funny ones in which the character in question is usually all of us.
“Some humans ain’t human,” he sang. “Some people ain’t kind/Look inside their hearts/And here’s what you’ll find/A few frozen pizzas/Some ice cubes with hair/Some broken popsicles/You don’t want to go there.”
Near the song’s end, though, the thing turned around and grew a switchblade:
“Or you’re feelin’ your freedom/And the world’s off your back/When some asshole from Texas/Starts his own war in Iraq.”
Then people laughed loudly and clapped loudly and hooted a little, like they usually do at John Prine shows. This in the same election year in which Linda Ronstadt was booed for praising filmmaker Michael Moore at this same venue (though it was less publicized then Ronstadt’s similar ordeal at a Las Vegas casino).
But Prine has a way of presenting things with such wit and good humor that folks laugh even as he’s sucker-punching them. Backed by bassist David Jacques and multi-instrumentalist Jason Wilber, Prine carried a few more surprises in the rest of his set (a new one called “Just Gettin By” written with Pat McLaughlin, a glorious guest appearance from Maura O’Connell on “Angel From Montgomery”), along with a slew of the well-worn gems he’s been singing for years.
Surgery for throat cancer in 1998 left Prine’s voice raspier than before, but nothing much has been lost; the effect is like adding a little extra grit to a slab of sandpaper. The words and the world view have always been the point, and Jacques and Wilber leave plenty of room for those things to come to the fore.
“This is going to be a great night, especially since I’m opening for the best songwriter this side of Bob Dylan,” said Kris Kristofferson at the show’s outset. Kristofferson has long been a Prine booster; he was there in the early 1970s to help a then-unknown Prine secure a record deal and a wider audience.
The notion of Kristofferson as an opening act is difficult to swallow, and some would argue that the old silver-tongued devil is in fact the best songwriter alive on either side of Dylan. Kristofferson performed with the accompaniment of his sometimes clumsily strummed Gibson acoustic guitar, leaving lyrics and melodies unadorned and allowing the power of his songs to hit full force.
Though he was onstage only 45 minutes, he was nonetheless able to deliver a bevy of classics, including “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, “Me And Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. With “In The News”, “They Killed Him” and “Broken Freedom Song”, he painted a picture of freedom more complicated and desirable than the bumming-around kind, one that was more than just another word for nothing left to lose.
Prine and Kristofferson joined together to close the show with two Prine songs. They blended best in the first one, “The Great Compromise”, in which a trifling woman symbolizes more than just a trifling woman.
“I’d rather have names thrown at me/Than to fight for a thing that ain’t right,” Prine sang, then both men looked out at their audience with disconcertingly direct stares. They’re serious about this stuff, you know.