Pavilion, Ravinia Park, Highland Park, 8/6/2019
published: 6 /
Lisa Torem watches septuagenarian singer-songwriter John Prine at the Pavilion in Ravinia Park in Illinois play a life-affirming set.
John Prine holed up in Nashville for a solitary week before braving the studio to record, ‘The Tree of Forgiveness,’ his first collection of originals in more than a decade. Dedication to his craft paid off; record sales have exceeded expectations. Having such success in one’s seventies might make another performer gloat, yet no one appeared more surprised by that update than the humble former mail carrier himself, when he revealed the album stats during his generous set, but more on that later…
Before passing through Ravinia’s grandiose entrance way, anxious fans buzzed around, hoping to score a few extra tickets, but their chances were slim. After all, Chicagoland is Prine turf. The singer-songwriter got his start at the now defunct The Fifth Peg. After a few months in, his work inspired a great review by a renowned critic, after which time word of Prine’s unique story telling spread - Kris Kristofferson, who also noted young Prine’s sensibility and depth, became a lifelong friend and aficionado. Even Dylan chimed in with rare praise.
Prine and “Friends” have been off on a world tour, which, by its completion in late December in his adopted home of Nashville, will have covered Europe and Canada as well as major cities in the USA and the UK His versatile touring band consists of singer/guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist David Jacques, Karl 'Fats' Kaplan on fiddle, pedal steel, guitar and vocals and drummer Kenneth Blevins. Acoustics were flawless, and the seasoned players demonstrated acute sensitivity to the rapid-fire set list.
There’s always a hint of suspense when attending an outdoor concert. The forecast did suggest rain, but, even though the night air grew colder as the set list progressed, the weather held.
Support act, ginger-haired Tyler Childers, whose Appalachian-inspired band features top-notch players, shares Prine’s gift for no-nonsense lyrics. Childers fired off tunes from ‘Country Squire,’ due for an August release. His chaffed vocals and learned phrasing belie biology —Childers writes like a guy who has seen it all- been there, done that, yet he’s only twenty-six.
After a brief intermission, Prine walked onstage as fans howled their excitement. After all, his time-tested, penetrating songs have been covered by Johnny Cash, Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt, to name just a few, yet the goal of hearing him live still tops many bucket lists.
Prine’s brilliant career has not been without strife. He has undergone several operations over the years, including one which affected the quality of his voice, but if that factor bothered him or his humungous fan base, one would hardly notice. And, after all, with a terrific backing band and a fistful of reliable chestnuts at his disposal, a set of weathered pipes merely made his deep cuts that much more rough-hewn and genuine.
The pace was quick, starting with the ironic, hard-hitter, ‘Six O’ Clock News’ and the new, hole-in-the heart ballad, ‘Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,’ which relies on casual-speak: “I ain’t got no loose change,” but carries a deeper meaning.
The rambling ‘Bruised Orange’ (‘Chain of Sorrow’), another introspective eye-opener, was followed by the upswing of ‘Spanish Pipedream,’ where a “level-head dancer” and “a soldier on the way to Montreal” somehow manage to synch.
As expected, Prine’s endearing personality took centre stage, especially when revealing the hilarious back story behind ‘Eggs and Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 ‘(‘Crazy Bone’). You too may wish, “you let your well-enough alone.”
The vintage ‘Grandpa was a Carpenter’ is as visceral as a character study can get. After all, he “chain-smoked Camel cigarettes” and “hammered nails and planks.” And in keeping with the geriatric theme, Prine’s tearful rendition of ‘Hello, In There’ was every bit as powerful today as it was when first written, so early on in Prine’s lengthy career: “You know that old trees just grow stronger…”
Judging by the lyrics of ‘Boundless Love’ from ‘TTOF,’ Prine still holds, in high regard, youthful innocence and optimism. It’s an elegant, but simple song, and its spirited chords swept over the pavilion, like a magical shooting star. If asked, I would have gladly joined in for the infectious chorus.
On the other hand, the message behind the spanking new ‘Summer’s End,’ which has helped bring attention to the crippling opiate plight, floated somewhere between devastated longing and unbridled compassion - “Come on home/No you don’t have to be alone…”
‘Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody’ found Prine cast as a quasi-social commentator. It was a clear fan favourite, which got shoulders popping. ‘Angel from Montgomery,’ covered notably by the likes of the aforementioned Bonnie Raitt, was acknowledged, as soon as Prine’s thumb pick traveled south, and was met with head-splitting cheers. A scholar of duplicity, Prine dug his heels in for the post-divorce lament, ‘All The Best,’ which he tackled solo.
He stayed happily under the spot for the conversational ‘Donald and Lydia’ and ‘Sam Stone,’ Prine’s classic tribute to a cast aside, American vet: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes…” Fortunately, Prine’s loyal fans are great listeners, so even those unfamiliar with his prophetic lyrics, were able to fully enjoy and appreciate the subtleties.
Fans were delighted when Prine’s wife, Fiona, and brother, Richard, came onstage for a few ballads; Richard’s fantastic banjo excelled on the finely structured ‘Lake Marie,’ on which Prine came steps away from performing rap.
At that point, the audience went mad, demanding an encore. The romantic, ‘When I Get to Heaven’ was an excellent choice. Prine’s down-to-earth personality shone through as he rattled off the life-affirming, rhythmic lyric: “I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the Tilt-A-Whirl…” and ‘Paradise’ also hit the spot. Prine’s deeply personal travelogue trucked us through his native Muhlenberg, Kentucky, “where empty pop bottles is all we would kill.”
Just this June, John Prine got inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, yet another impressive notch in an illustrious career. His searing songs acquaint us, sometimes boldly and at other times, gently, to characters we may never meet, but secretly long to…