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.
Last 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.
In 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.