In Appreciation of Mellencamp’s “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)”

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After hearing 1996’s “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” two or three times at random times over the last week or so – on my iTunes/Spotify shuffle, on SiriusXM – I realized that, to me, it’s the last great Mellencamp tune. Yeah, I know he’s had some quality stuff since – darker, bluesier, rootsier… some of it produced by T-Bone Burnett. But I’ve always favored the melodic, folk/pop-oriented sounds of Mr. Mellencamp – from “Ain’t Even Done With The Night” to “Tumblin’ Down” to “Jackie Brown” and a host of others (can’t forget the quirky Casio sounds of “Jackie O“, which he co-wrote with John Prine).

“Key West” is found on the album ‘Mr Happy Go Lucky‘, John’s first album after his heart attack scare in August of 1994 (at the age of 42). He pulled out all the stops and brought in DJ/dance producer Junior Vasquez to produce the album. There’s still the folk/pop, but with the loops and funkier feel – especially on “Key West.”  That’s soul-man extraordinaire Raphael Saadiq plucking the bass on the track too.

As for the video? Yep, that’s Matthew McConaughey (three years post-‘Dazed and Confused’). Outstanding tune. Wistful, pleading, horny, and funky. An ode to that pretty girl who’s just out of reach. The song hit #14 on the Billboard Hot 100 – John’s last Top 40 song (to date).

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

Newport and the three D’s (Dawes, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick)

The Middle Brother Gang: Taylor, John, Matt

I’m just back from an epic family vacation that took us from the Valley of the Sun to Boston, then to New York City, and then on to Newport, Rhode Island for my (and my family’s) first Newport Folk Festival.

First off, it was great to have the opportunity to meet some of the people I’ve gotten to know through this web site, and through the internet music community I’ve been immersed in for the last several years. In Boston, I met Mike Heyliger, denizen of Popblerd. In NYC, I met my Ickmusic collaborator Michael Parr (who, unbeknownst to many, I had never met), his lovely wife Christine, and Dennis Corrigan aka @IrishJava. And finally, in Rhode Island, I met up with Ken Shane, senior music editor of Popdose, who was also behind the Newport Folk Festival’s social media presence, handling NFF’s Twitter & Facebook postings throughout the festival weekend.

As I expected, meeting these folks was nothing like meeting a person for the first time. Say what you will about the internet, but you really do come to know people through mediums like music blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Rdio, Spotify, and whatever social platform Google is trying lately (Buzz, +, etc.). It’s a connection of the like-minded: the shared passion for music, and its marriage with technology in the 21st century. These are exciting times to be a music fan – of course, all of this access to music and those who perform and follow it can be overwhelming, to say the least. But it sure is fun to navigate through it all with people like these folks. So Mike, Michael, Christine, Dennis, Ken – great to meet you all in person. Now you all know what a sexy beast I am in real life.

So in Newport, the music portion of the vacation took hold. My family, they’re good sports. They know that I’ll do my best to work in a music angle to every outing, near or far. This summer, it was the Newport Folk Festival. Highest on my list of must-see’s were Delta Spirit, Middle Brother, and M. Ward, backed by Dawes. Over the last couple of years, I’ve gone rather bonkers for the “D” trifecta: Deer Tick, Delta Spirit, and Dawes.

Although Deer Tick wasn’t on the festival bill, by no means did that suggest they’d stay quiet for the weekend. The band is from Providence after all. Much to my delight, John McCauley and the band announced three late night gigs at the Newport Blues Cafe – Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Best of all, the club was right across the street from our hotel in Newport. So, for me, the Folk Festival weekend ended up being bookended by two raucous late night gigs featuring Deer Tick and friends…

I missed the early acts on Friday, but when I rolled in at 10:30, Deer Tick was just taking the stage, and they didn’t stop until 1am. They played originals and some cool covers – a few Nirvana tunes (DT has an alter ego called Deervana, and have played entire Nirvana sets billed as them); John Prine’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me”, and some – uh- others that I didn’t have the foresight to tap into my iPhone (damn Blue Moons).

Deer Tick during Friday's gig

Sunday’s gig was extra cool, featuring an opening set by Dawes, and appearances by Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez, M. Ward (for a brief guitar solo on the last tune of the night, “La Bamba”), Joe Fletcher, and my new favorite, Jonny Corndawg – a wild, young countryfied singer from Virginia – and a close bud of the Deer Tick clan. His debut is due later this year, but he does have a Daytrotter session under his belt, and is featured here on Songs: Illinois (I didn’t get him either, Craig, till I saw him perform).

The closing sets of my Sunday Newport Folk Festival were Middle Brother, Dawes, and M. Ward. I’ll have more about the festival itself soon in another post, but the good vibe that was evident in MidBro and Dawes’ sets continued on to the Newport Blues Cafe on Sunday evening. It’s so interesting to note the contrasts between the three “D” bands themselves, and the front men from each who make up Middle Brother. You have Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes – the introspective, sensitive one. You have Deer Tick’s McCauley – unrefined, raw, gritty, laid back, taking it all as it comes. And then there’s Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez – wild, carefree, and caretaker of a primal scream that can shake the rafters. Matt was clearly the MidBro member feeling the least amount of pain on Sunday night. Everyone was having a great time, but Matt was having a GREAT time. His lead vocals on two Nirvana covers backed by Deer Tick (“Negative Creep” and “Senseless Apprentice”) were a highlight – whipping the small club into a crowd surfing frenzy.

Delta Punk: Matt Vasquez with Deer Tick
Matt Vasquez with Deer Tick

Although the festival itself had its great moments- and I’ll cover them soon – it was the two late nights with Deer Tick & Friends that really made my weekend extra special. I was seeing Deer Tick for the first time, and on their home turf. The opening song of their debut album, War Elephant, is “Ashamed”. I liked the tune as is, but seeing it performed in Newport on Friday and Sunday, with the crowd wailing out in unison, “Ohhh–oooh-Ohhhhhhhh”, was one of those thrilling moments that make the live music experience so great – and make the songs you hear on the album so much better.

Sweet! It’s on YouTube. This captured it perfectly, because, well, this was it:

After Friday’s gig, I went up to John and thanked him for a great set, and since he’s a huge John Prine fan (like myself), I thanked him for keeping Prine’s music out there as well.

Telling him I came all the way from Arizona, John replied, “Welcome to my home state.” It sure was a great welcome, and ushered in a hell of a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island.

Deer Tick | Delta Spirit | Dawes | Middle Brother

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrrwckzksig&w=480&h=390

KMAG YOYO [New from Hayes Carll]

It was just a matter if time before I got around to Hayes Carll. After all, I’m a long time fan of artists cut from the same cloth: Steve Earle, John Prine and Todd Snider in particular. Hayes sounds a lot like Snider, very similar singing voices – and as far as his sense of humor goes, Snider and Prine are blood brothers of Carll (don’t get confused on “Bottle In My Hand” though, that is indeed Mr. Snider joining along).

As a Rdio subscriber, I’m always jumping on the new releases every Tuesday. Today, Hayes Carll’s latest, KMAG YOYO (& other American stories), hit the real and virtual shelves. It was SiriusXM Outlaw Country that played me “The Lovin’ Cup” today, and I headed right over to Rdio to check out the whole album.

The title of the album may be familiar to our military, but silly old civilian me, I had to Google it. It’s an Army acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own”.

“The Lovin’ Cup” is right up my twang-lovin’ alley – an up tempo, roadhouse shit-kicker of a song…

“I’m sittin’ cross-legged in the heartache tree knowin’ damn well you ain’t a-thinkin’ bout me…”

Buy the MP3 of The Lovin’ Cup, or check out all of KMAG YOYO (& other American stories) on Amazon.

Check out Hayes Carll’s Official Site | Facebook

Here’s Hayes and his band performing the title track recently at SiriusXM’s studios…

[Ick’s Pick] Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine

I discovered the treasure trove that is the music of John Prine back in the early 90’s, during my last year of college. The Missing Years about knocked me on my butt, with its witty wordplay, catchy cadences, and gorgeous melodies. The album led me directly to Great Days: The John Prine Anthology, which gave me a crash course in this American treasure, the postman turned folk singer from Maywood, Illinois.

In reading the liner notes of the new tribute album, Broken Hearts &Dirty Windows – Songs of John Prine, I found out that Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) had the same experience – growing up in Wisconsin and happening across the Anthology; getting to know John Prine through classics like “Sam Stone”, “Paradise”, “That’s The Way That The World Goes Round”, and “Hello In There.”

With the release of this fantastic new tribute album, it’s clear that Prine has had a similar impact on a host of younger artists – and it’s interesting that the artists on this record rank among some of my current favorites: Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Old Crow Medicine Show, Deer Tick, Drive-By Truckers… it makes sense now: we’re all rooted in Prine’s music, and as they’ve matured and made music of their own, its these same roots that have pulled me into their music.

The common theme is humble, genuine, gritty, homegrown American music.

The standouts for me on this record include Deer Tick’s “Unwed Fathers”, featuring the sandpaper vocals of John McCauley and the sweet accompaniment of Liz Isenberg; Josh Ritter does “Mexican Home” from 1973’s Sweet Revenge. Ritter takes Prine’s uptempo version. and slows it way down – exposing the song’s melancholy core:

“My father died on the porch outside
On an August afternoon
I sipped bourbon and cried
With a friend by the light of the moon
So its hurry! hurry! Step right up
It’s a matter of life or death
The sun is going down
And the moon is just holding its breath.

Drive-By Truckers do their thing, taking The Missing Year‘s “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” and shifting it into overdrive; My Morning Jacket also do a Missing Years tune, “All The Best”, which Jim James and Prine recently performed on Letterman (worth a look); the Avett Brothers pick what I think is the perfect song for them: “Spanish Pipedream”; and Old Crow Medicine Show take the beautiful “Angel from Montgomery” and add their old timey flavor to it.

The big surprise for me was the album’s finale – “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” as performed by Those Darlins, a female trio from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. First off, it’s one of Prine’s most hilarious songs, the innuendos flying left & right. And then you add a sexy rhythm, an island feel, and the sensual and sassy singing of Those Darlins. Play this at a BBQ this summer, it’ll be a guaranteed hit. It’s such a fun ride, and a fitting finale to what amounts to a great tribute to good ol’ John Prine.

John Prine and Jim James: “All The Best” on Letterman

I did a double take earlier this week when I noticed the music guests scheduled for Wednesday’s Letterman: John Prine with Yim Yames (Jim James) of My Morning Jacket. Much to my surprise, the song they sang is one of my all-time Prine favorites, “All The Best”, which was actually the song that turned me on to John Prine back in my college years. The song was included on the soundtrack for Falling From Grace, a 1992 movie directed by and starring John Mellencamp and written by Larry McMurtry (Prine also appears in the film). “All The Best” was also featured on Prine’s standout 1991 album, The Missing Years, which became one of my most treasured albums.

The duo were out to promote what looks to be a stellar John Prine tribute record called Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs Of John Prine. Other artists covering Prine on the album include Bon Iver, Justin Townes Earle, Conor Oberst, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers and Deer Tick. If this isn’t worthy of a pre-order, I don’t know what is.

As for the performance itself, well, how can you go wrong? John and Jim trade verses, then share the last one. The low burn of John Prine’s voice coupled with Jim James’ higher register voice makes for one beautiful performance.

PRE-ORDER

Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs Of John Prine (out June 22)

BUY

The Missing Years

Hello In There

I was eating dinner with my family earlier tonight at one of those Pay-$9.00-and-gorge yourself types of restaurants (rhymes with “Pete Potatoes”). Sitting in the booth behind me was an old gentleman – probably 80 or so. He sat there alone, eating his dinner. On my trips to the salad bar, and the soup bar, and the drink refills, and taking my 3 year old to the rest room (so she could tell me that she didn’t have to go) – on my way back from those trips – I’d see him. He’d look up my way with a vacant look in his eyes, and I’d purse my lips into a respectful smile and pass by. He didn’t look happy, nor did he look sad. Just – vacant. Expressionless. He was just having dinner.

It was late afternoon, and the hot desert sun was creeping down the western sky outside. The sunlight was beaming through a window, moving down on his booth, and the last time I passed him, the bright sun was shining directly into the old timer’s face like a spotlight. He sat there unfazed, finishing his meal.

For some reason, the image of the sun on the old man’s face made an imprint in me. I felt compassion for him. Not knowing a thing about him, I thought of the worse case scenarios – that here was an old man in the twilight of his life, eating alone on a Sunday night. Maybe he’d recently lost his wife. Maybe he was a sad and lonely man. Maybe the only human interaction he has left in his daily life is a dinner at a local restaurant. Maybe it would make his day if a random stranger approached him and said “How ya doing?”

I immediately thought of the John Prine song, “Hello In There”, this verse in particular:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”

All it takes is a hello. Taking a minute or two out of your life to look someone in the eye and let them know someone in this world cares.

So did I act on it? Of course not. We rarely do in this day and age, right? As we got up to leave, the old timer’s booth was empty, and an opportunity was lost. And I felt a tinge of shame. I still do tonight.

Maybe I read too much into it. Maybe he has a rich and fulfilling life. Or maybe he’d rather just be left alone. The frustrating thing for me is that I didn’t take the time to find out.

John Prine | Hello In There (mp3) – from John Prine

Bruised Orange – Anger Management with John Prine

Some days are better than others. And when I find myself with my patience thinning (way too frequently as I get older, it seems), I always think of the chorus of this John Prine song…

You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
but it don’t do no good to get angry,
so help me I know

The sage advice of John Prine. What good does it really do to raise your voice? To pound your fist? To yell an expletive that your neighbors can probably hear from the street? With reality slapping you in the face every day – bills, a family to support, short tempered kids (where’d they get THAT from?), stupid drivers – well, it’s hard not to lose your cool.

And when I feel it coming on, I always try to take myself to this John Prine song..

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter.
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
wrapped up in a trap of your very own
chain of sorrow.

Stop. Take a deep breath. Put everything into perspective. And don’t sweat the small stuff.
Stay cool, peeps.

John PrineBruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow) [mp3]

From Bruised Orange

Take a look at this 1980 Soundstage special, with John driving around his hometown in Illinois, telling the story behind the song…

Standing by Peaceful Waters

There’s something about a sunny Sunday morning and the music of John Prine that just seem to go together. Hmm, a weekly Sunday post featuring a Prine tune? I’ll mull that one over.

Some of you may know of my appreciation for John’s 1991 album The Missing Years, a collection of warm & witty tunes featuring the likes of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Bonnie Raitt. The follow-up album four years later came in the form of Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings. While not as strong end to end as its predecessor, it also contains its share of brilliant moments, with the same biting wit of John’s songwriting and the production also handled by then-Heartbreaker Howie Epstein (another talent lost to heroin addiction).

“Lake Marie” is one that certainly crafts an interesting story, and has a chorus that sticks in your head. It tells the story of a lake on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, the makings of a marriage, and oh yeah, a double homicide: “Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sharp object / Saw it on the news / On the TV news / In a black and white video / You know what blood looks like in a black and white video? / Shadows. Shadows! That’s exactly what it looks like“.

Some lyrics are unmistakably John Prine: “Many years later we found ourselves in Canada / Trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish / Whatever came first“.

John PrineLake Marie (mp3)

Links: Buy Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings| Official Site | John Prine Shrine (great fan site)