In Person & On Stage
[Oh Boy Records (2010)]
Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine
[Oh Boy Records (2010)]
To get a John Prine song is to sorta emerge puzzling over the way language has been spoken to realign time and space. Usually, the space between people who mean more than stolen moments to each other. As Prine himself has so aptly put it in a song that does not appear on either of these records: “Often Is A Word I Seldom Use.”
It’s a good thing Prine himself can still get around and intone his songs, because not many of the younger set seem to get him, which is evident in his record label’s selection of covering artists and bands on last year’s tribute album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine. The most perfectly played fiddle and articulated vocal by Sara Watkins on “The Late John Garfield Blues” accompanied by Sean Watkins’ faultlessly plucked acoustic guitar and bass guitar cannot help this singer find a way into Prine’s admittedly enigmatic lyric. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver narrates a sweet childhood musical memoir of finding Prine in his parents’ mobile music collection in a family van trip to a Wisconsin lake. In the liner notes Vernon seems to get Prine. But his vocal impersonation of Prine on a nearly note-for-note, inflection-for-inflection, all-instruments-overdubbed-by-Vernon cover of that rare Prine clunker “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” brings nothing lived to the table. The usually fresh and vital Avett Brothers aided on harmonica and harmony vocal by Paleface can’t quite place the verbal or rhythmic accents on “Spanish Pipedream.”
Compare the Avetts’ cover with Prine’s concert opener, reaching way back to the first step away from his Chicago U.S. Mail letter carrier’s bag he set down for a gifted 1971 Atlantic Records debut. The year is 2007 and, after recovering from throat cancer surgery that removed part of his throat, Prine is touring in a power trio as vividly captured in a center-aisle recording only issued late last year titled In Person & On Stage. Prine could charm the pants off a street mime. His booming & swinging upright bass player, Shakey Dave Jacques (pronounced Jakes), and widely-versed lead string-slinger, Jason Wilber, lay down grooves from loping country blues to chugging soulful Stax. Prine’s knifed-throat vocals, miraculously smoother and more muscular than Bob Dylan’s recent barnstorming howl, and shuffling electric guitar strumming meshes with his band’s punkish thrust at “Saddle in the Rain,” embellished with a verse added to the end evocative of the magical realism or revival rapture overtaking a late dusky Sunday at the laundromat. Wilber sounds like he’s playing his electro-glide guitar through a Leslie amp a la Poco’s pedal steel pioneer Rusty Young, cuz Prine’s trio sounds like an organ dropped in to fatten the cantering groove.
Prine is joined for vocal duets on “Angel from Montgomery” by Emmylou Harris, whose thin reedy pinched and breathey mountain moan makes Shatnerian melodrama out of the non-communicative mole hill magnified in Bonnie Raitt’s full-voiced and glissando slide guitar versions often performed at benefit concerts down through the years, as grainy desolate marital quotidian coming into slow focus. Iris DeMent’s duet voice reprising Prine’s soundtrack contribution to a straight-to-DVD Billy Bob Thornton movie, “In Spite of Ourselves,” slashes back salty as any sailor’s fantasy of domesticity. Prine’s a gentleman to play low self-esteem prole, and he wrote the best lines for the usually churched DeMent’s magnanimous if sober spouse.
Josh Ritter alone of all the newest generation of Prine tributaries intuits his way into “Mexican Home,” accenting Prine’s narrator with a wavelength harmony vocal on the live record and offering a brighter-eyed 21st Century NAFTA-inhabitant on the tribute disc.
—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)