John Prine / Iris DeMent
Old Town School / Chicago Folk Center
November 19, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2000, Volume 7, #1
Written by John Metzger
John Prine might not have the best voice in music, and this is something he often jokes about on stage. Yet the former Maywood, Illinois mailman knows how to use it to his advantage, succeeding where others with greater vocal capacity often fail. In addition, Prine has an unusual knack for crafting weighty story-songs that often hide a darker message just beneath the surface of his witty lyrics.
On November 19, Prine made his triumphant return to Chicago for the first of four shows at the Old Town School's Chicago Folk Center. He was at the top of his game too, despite a recent bout with throat cancer that took him out of commission for several years. Prine's reemergence on the music scene coincided with the release of In Spite of Ourselves, an album he began recording more than three years ago. The album pairs Prine with a who's who of female country vocalists for a variety of cover songs configured as a concept album that tells the tale of the dissolution of a relationship. It's the kind of twisted joke in the face of emotional turmoil that one would expect from Prine.
Flanked by longtime bassist David Jacques and multi-instrumentalist Jason Wilbur, Prine delivered more than two hours of music that ran the gamut of his career. His voice was remarkably strong; his guitar picking simple yet elegant. Donald and Lydia was performed as a haunting solo number, perfectly capturing the dispassionate relationship of two lovers who can only connect physically, but struggle to find any deeper bond with one another. In contrast, Prine and his band turned songs like Picture Show into raging country-rock romps worthy of Bob Dylan.
Throughout the evening, Jacques alternated between upright, acoustic, and electric bass, providing gentle rhythm to songs like Fish and Whistle and a funky undercurrent to Ain't Hurtin' Nobody. Meanwhile, Wilbur drifted between electric guitar, mandolin, dobro, lap steel, and harmonica. At times his presence was remarkably understated, and the subtlety of his simple two-note, glass-slide slurs spoke with volumes of emotion, evoking the emptiness inherent in Angel from Montgomery. Yet on songs like Lake Marie, Wilbur cranked up the volume as he, Prine, and Jacques pushed a simple chord structure to its limit, embracing the turbulent lyrics and enhancing them with a fierce wall of sound.
It's no surprise that Prine also chose to perform a series of selections from In Spite of Ourselves, and the general spirit of these fit smoothly with Prine's own material. However, although he was joined by Iris DeMent for several of these songs, none of them really held up against the overall songwriting quality of Prine's own compositions.
DeMent opened the show with a captivating solo set split between acoustic guitar and piano that complemented Prine's own performance perfectly. Her angelic voice gave her introspective songs an aura of vulnerability as she sang about the passage of time, life, and love. However, DeMent also embraced life as the introvert within her not only yearned to reach out into the physical world but also attempted to find salvation through her music.
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