“I wanted to sing real pretty for you tonight, but I opened my mouth and this croak came out. Hopefully, I can sing through it.”
So said songwriter extraordinaire John Prine early in his set Friday night at the Paramount Theatre. It says something about Prine’s way with words and vocals that despite the uneven singing, the sheer joy of his songs could still shine through. The fans even cheered loudly when Prine acknowledged his vocal limitations, and song requests were frequently shouted throughout the evening.
Prine opened the evening with “Spanish Pipedream,” and the vocal troubles that would plague portions of the show were evident early, as Prine’s voice seemed extra gravelly. Guitarist Jason Wilber, playing a Fender Telecaster, delved into a silky twangy guitar solo midsong.
On “Picture Show,” Prine and his band seemed to have some difficulty locking in. It almost seemed as though Prine, Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques were playing in and out of different tempos. However, by the time Prine delved into “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get you into Heaven Anymore,” the band was tight.
Many of Prine’s songs are simple, following a basic I-IV-V chord progression. While introducing “Souvenirs,” Prine even alluded to this, explaining that he had written the song in his head while driving his car to a gig early in his career. He thought he’d come up with a song that would require complicated jazz chords. Then, he realized as he rehearsed the song in his dressing room that it had “the same three chords I always play. I guess my mind only works in three chords.”
At about half way through the show, an odd thing happened: Prine seemed to regain his voice, coincidentally about the same time that Wilber and Jacques left the stage and Prine played six songs on his own. “Sins of Memphisto” in particular stood out, as Prine’s intricate fingerpicking backed tender vocals.
First Jacques, then Wilber, rejoined Prine during a transcendent “Sam Stone.” Jacques bowing on his double bass created a strong weight to the second chorus. Prine seemed to struggle with his voice again late in the set, but on the encore, opening act Tim O’Brien, as well as his sister Mollie, lifted “Unwed Fathers,” above Prine’s vocal limitations.
Former hometown hero Tim O’Brien, now living in Nashville and sporting a new beard, shifted between guitar, mandolin and fiddle on his too-short opening set, playing songs from back in his Hot Rize career like “Nellie Kane,” as well as covering a George Jones song, “The Window Up Above.”
John Prine Setlist
Spanish Pipedream, Picture Show, Humidity Built the Snowman, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, Six O’Clock News, Souvenirs, Grandpa Was a Carpenter, Storm Windows, Christmas in Prison, Fish and Whistle, Long Monday, Glory of True Love, Angel from Montgomery, Sins of Memphisto, You Got Gold, Donald and Lydia, My Mexican Home, The Way the World Goes Round, Sam Stone, Bear Creek Blues, Hello in There, Lake Marie, E: Unwed Fathers*, Paradise*
*with Tim and Mollie O’Brien
Tim O’Brien Setlist
This Morning, Nellie Kane, Family History, Not Afraid O’ Dyin’, Working on a Building, Window Up Above, Workin’