Interview: John PrineBy John Wenzel | June 12th, 2009 | No Comments »
Country-folk legend John Prine is certainly a friend of the Front Range, having visited Red Rocks, the Paramount Theatre, Denver Botanic Gardens and other venues regularly over his nearly four decades of touring and recording. Prine even remembers Marvelous Marv’s, a club near 15th and Curtis streets that eventually became ’70s folk- and rock-haven Ebbets Field. “It had leopard-skin walls, and the waitresses were dressed like cave women,” the 62-year-old Grammy winner said with a chuckle from Nashville earlier this week. “The place more resembled a Playboy club, but it was under this office building downtown.”
We talked to Prine in advance of his co-headlining date with Levon Helm at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Saturday about his Denver memories, his history with Helm and the value of throwing out your set list.
Colorado had a strong folkmusic circuit in the early 1970s, which is when you started coming up. Did you play here much?
I started coming out there pretty early on. Me and Steve Goodman (a fellow Chicago folk revivalist) would do a week at a time at Tulagi’s in Boulder. I also played Ebbets Field, Chuck Morris’ club, with George Carlin, who was just getting rid of his Hippy Dippy Weatherman act. The conservatives in the audience were not used to it, and I remember Carlin referred to the audience as “beehives and bow-ties.” He was fun, unlike a lot of comedians.
You’re co-headlining Red Rocks with Levon Helm, the former drummer and sometime-singer for the Band. You seem to have a strong connection, besides the fact that you’ve both beaten cancer that could have ended your singing careers. When did you two first meet?
I didn’t meet Levon until after (Band singer) Robbie Robertson left and the Band regrouped, probably in the late ’70s. I used to go see him play, and I got to know (bassist) Rick Danko. But when I first met Levon, there was something about his personality that immediately attracted me to him, besides being a big fan of his playing and singing.
What is it you like about his playing?
The reason I don’t use a drummer live is because most drummers scare me. If they’re the slightest bit ahead, I’ll find my rhythm guitar catching up with them because they’re louder than me. But Levon always plays behind the beat. You think he’s going to miss it but then he slams it out of the park.
What’s the setup going to be like at your show on Saturday?
What I’m hoping for is to be able to go out and play with him and his band and also have some, if not all, of them come out and play with us. I’ll also be doing most of my regular show with my band. We’ll see if they lay any curfews on us first, ’cause I hate to cut back.
Do you prefer longer sets?
We just try and cover as much territory as possible and do songs from all the records. I don’t do a set list, per se. I wrote so many ballads that I always feel like I have to put an upbeat song after something like “Sam Stone.” But we do a lot of the songs from the very first record that have turned into such classics.
Do you adjust your performance style at large amphitheaters like Red Rocks?
I try and keep it more upbeat and keep people in a festive mood. Other than that, I’ll probably be wearing the same suit I was when I was there last year with Emmylou (Harris).
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John Wenzel is the co-editor of Reverb, editor of the Get Real Denver blog and an arts and entertainment reporter for The Denver Post. His book “Mock Stars: Indie Comedy and the Dangerously Funny” was recently published by Speck Press.