Concert Review: John Prine Live at Portsmouth Music Hall (4.20.13)

Some voices don’t age well.  Dylan’s once mercurial croon is now a raspy drone.  And will someone tell Roger Daltrey to please stop.  His days of properly belting “Baba O’Riley” are long gone.

Some voices, though, seem to grow into their songs as the singer ages.  Case in point: the American songwriting genius John Prine.  Like the exterior of the Statue of Liberty losing its original copper sheen and becoming the iconic green lady we know today, Prine’s voice seems to finally fit the masterful songs he’s been singing since his twenties.  Listening to the original recordings of “Christmas in Prison” or “Spanish Pipedream,” you can hear a young voice attempting to fill timeless, penetrating lyrics.

Music HallLast night at the beautifully restored Portsmouth Music Hall, John Prine warbled his songs for an hour and a half with a voice that finally has the appropriate patina to befit his ever genius, ever sardonic ballads.  Lines like, “It was Christmas in Prison and the food was real good / We had turkey and pistols carved out of wood,” from the aforementioned “Christmas in Prison,” just sounds better now that Prine’s voice is aged and storied.

Let’s get something straight, however, the man’s voice is not raspy or scoured.  No, it still sounds very much like John Prine’s voice, it just seems to have lost its baby fat and achieved the correct timbre to tell the American stories he’s always told.

I hate to admit it, but the two biggest highlights of last night’s show were “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery.”  I know, I know, those are his hits, but I’ll gladly be damned if last night they weren’t transcendent.  It was as if Prine took us to another world filled with heartache and pain, where rooms smell like death and flies buzz in kitchens.  A world much like ours, but, like any good artist, the world is Prine’s.  Accompanied by textured and tasteful guitar work from Jason Wilber and both a bowed and plucked upright bass from Dave Jacques, the songs each had a layered sound, setting the canvas for Prine’s now-sage voice.

When he reached the final verse of “Sam Stone” singing, “But life had lost its fun / And there was nothing to be done / But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill / For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill,” I was moved near tears.  For the first time I connected with those lyrics on a human level.  Again, I attribute this to Prine’s pitch-perfect voice for these songs.

John PrineIn the same way, when Prine breathed the lines, “There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear them buzzing / And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today / How the hell can a person go to work in the morning / And come home in the evening with nothing to say,” I felt the tortured existence of the narrator trapped in that song.  I’ve never felt “Angel From Montgomery” as deeply as I felt it last night.  It’s a concert experience, as the apt cliche goes, that I will never forget.  It’s emblazoned on my psyche, nay, my soul, by John Prine’s voice.

Allen Ginsberg described Bob Dylan as being one with his breath during Dylan’s 1965 tour of England.  “Dylan,” the Beat poet asserts, “had become a column of air so to speak, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body.”  In the same way, the man I witnessed on stage last night at the Portsmouth Music Hall has become his own column of air moving through well-aged vocal chords ready to tell his at once hilarious and heartbreaking stories.

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  1. I am happy I shared the experience. Before I read this write up I left a message on your phone…I needed to check my perceptions. I left last night thinking he had touched my heart in the way a story teller should, but rarely does. Thinking to myself today I started asking if my perception of Prine as a complete master of his craft was due more to the fact I desperately wanted him to be or because of the brilliance of his performance last night. (Listen to the message when you get a chance.) Anyway, your write up makes it clear: my perceptions of the experience were as true as his carpenter grandfather’s work. Thanks for that. It was as if I needed some form of affirmation before I allowed the compassion in Prine’s voice settle in me…

    1. I felt the same way when I awoke on Sunday and began reflecting on the show. I wondered if it really was as ‘transcendent’ as I had imagined. But when I started writing the review and digging into my memory, I realized that, yes, the show sizzled and hummed. Prine is on top of his game right now, and we were lucky to lay witness to that.

  2. Nice writeup of the Prine show David, but there’s a small mistake in it. The guitar player’s name is Wilber, not Wilder. And actually he was the real highlight of the show.

    1. Thanks for the keen eye–made the change above. Wilber was an absolute sound guru on Saturday night. Like I mentioned above, his work on “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery” made those songs pop. I’m sticking with my guns that John Prine was the star of the show, but I see where you’re coming from. I know that the songs would not have been so affecting if it were only Prine on stage. I could see writing a post on each of the musicians up there. I guess I just gravitated towards Prine’s voice. Whatever moves you!

      1. John was definitely feeling good, I think the rowdy crowd helped get him going. He always opens with ‘Spanish Pipe dream’ and closes with ‘Lake Marie’ and encores ‘Paradise’ with whoever opened. In between he included a few I haven’t heard in a while, it was a longer than usual set.

        One thing that struck me – Chris Trapper the opening act, was very entertaining. And he heaped praise on John during his set. But he didn’t appear to know ‘Paradise’! Very odd, but Chris was obviously thrilled to be standing up there with him anyway.

        This was our first visit to the Music Hall, it was a very nice venue. I was worried for a couple of seconds, we were right in front of the speakers and when the MC first came out her wireless mic was way too hot. I jumped 3 feet off my seat and was thinking we might have relocate out to the bar. Luckily they fixed that immediately. Portsmouth is a very cool town, we’ll be back very soon!

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