Recap: John Prine at the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix

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Pardon me while I enjoy this warm afterglow I’m feeling – the afterglow that comes from seeing living legend John Prine perform live.

It was a Saturday night, and the setting was perfect – the ornate 82-year old Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix. Loudon Wainwright III‘s hour-long opening set was filled with his brand of humor and songs “about death and decay.” Songs like “The Shit Song,” “Heaven,” and a request from promoter Danny Zelisko, “Dead Skunk,” were nothing short of hilarious; but he also offered up some introspective tunes with a melancholy edge, like “Thanksgiving”, a quiet ballad about dysfunction around the Turkey Day table. Having never truly explored Loudon’s music, the set made me want to dip back into his catalog and see what I’ve been missing all these years.

But the night, after all, belonged to John Prine. At 9pm, John and his trio took the stage and didn’t stop for two solid hours. The songs covered his 40 year recording career from his first 1971 self-titled album to his last studio offering, 2005′s Fair & Square.
In fact, he played eight out of the thirteen songs from his first album.

The anti-war “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” was introduced by telling the audience the song was so old, he couldn’t remember which war it was about.

“Angel From Montgomery” featured a beautiful mandolin opening by guitar/harmonica man Jason Wilber, who ended the tune with some great electric slide.

“Sam Stone”, about a heroin-addicted war veteran, started off with John solo acoustic. Then bass player Dave Jacques walked out and joined in with a bow on his standup bass – and finally Wilber walked out and joined in on some quiet electric.

The contributions of Wilber and Jacques can’t be understated. Their years of experience backing up Prine have made the three a single organism. They know when to add the slightest nuance and embellishment to a tune, adding sweet, quiet notes to John’s acoustic classics like “Far From Me” and “Hello In There” – yet they can crank it up to power trio volume on folk rockers like “Bear Creek Blues,” “Picture Show, ” and the fun ditties like “Fish and Whistle.”

Prine and the band have re-worked some tunes into some fantastic new arrangements too. “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody”, the opener from 1995′s Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings, was transformed into something dark & funky, with Wilber playing these low slide riffs that added an edge to it. “Lake Marie” also was reworked, but not losing its entertaining but slightly sinister vibe.

Wilber and Jacques left the stage for a few tunes, leaving John and his guitar to strum out “Crazy As A Loon,” “Dear Abby,” and one of my all-time Prine favorites: “Blue Umbrella.”

Earlier in the set, Prine dedicated “Souvenirs” not only to his late friend and songwriting partner Steve Goodman, but to the doctor who cleared him of cancer a decade earlier, who was in the audience.

Since discovering his music in my late teens, John Prine’s music has helped me navigate the challenging, sometimes absurd path of life. His songs are honest, funny, wry, and comforting. Some folks you just trust, and look to in life to help show you the way. John Prine is one of those people for me (and for countless others, many in the audience last night). Throughout the night, I found myself closing my eyes, savoring the experience of spending time with one of my heroes.

God bless John Prine.

Set List

Spanish Pipedream
Picture Show
Humidity Built the Snowman
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Six O’clock News
Souvenirs
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Far from Me
Christmas in Prison
Fish and Whistle
Long Monday
Glory of True Love
Angel From Montgomery
Crazy As A Loon *
Dear Abby *
Blue Umbrella *
Sam Stone [solo & band]
Bear Creek Blues
Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody
Hello In There
Lake Marie

Encore:
Paradise (with Loudon Wainwright)

*John solo