by Mark Guarino
Long-time Chicagoans often have to look twice when maneuvering through its neighborhoods. Intersections, storefronts, even whole blocks, are gone, as if airlifted away and replaced by something unrecognizable.
In some cases, it’s only the name that’s changed. But sometimes that can be enough to take notice.
“I don’t care what they call this place, it’ll always be Orchestra Hall to me,” joked John Prine at Symphony Center Friday. Another cherished Chicago product, he stood on the same stage where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been performing for more than 100 years, starting when Daniel Burnham’s auditorium bore its original name. Yet amid that history, and on a stage where legendary conductors have filled the air with the complex grandeur of Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky, Prine stood alone, on some songs hitting a single string, the effect no less profound.
His two-hour, 22-song performance was a homecoming, as they all are when the Maywood native returns to town. There have not been new songs for quite some time, but this tour did not need the special occasion. Instead, Prine showcased a repertoire of songs that is in it own class: bare but eloquent, comic but dark.
His band remains simply arranged, just bassist Dave Jacques and guitarist Jason Wilber. They were enough to gently illuminate the haunting beauty of songs like “Souvenirs,” rising in chugging rock fury during “Saddle in the Rain” or providing a Buddy Holly stomp on “Picture Show.” Where Prine’s lyrics provided snapshots of characters frozen in isolation, Wilber stepped in and gave them voice through lush guitar interludes or simple tones that that answered Prine’s vocal. His playing colored the evening, with eloquent phasing and tasteful solos.
Wilber and Jacques exited, leaving Prine alone for five songs in the middle of the set. For those who missed it many decades earlier, here was a reflection of his early folk days in Old Town. Some of his former peers were mentioned — “Angel From Montgomery” was dedicated to Ed Holstein, who still performs in town and teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Some were among his saddest — “Christmas in Prison” played to a hush, or “Sam Stone,” a song from his 1971 debut album that just last year was named by Rolling Stone readers as the 8th Saddest Song of All Time, in the improbable company of few others, including Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails.
Prine’s greatest impact, however, are songs that carry the middle and deliver rascally one-liners that produce instant laughs in the context of probing deep mysteries and hurts. “Humidity Killed the Snowman,” “Six O’clock News,” and “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round,” all remain compact masterpieces for how profound truths are dropped through plain talk. And chords — “Thank god for G chords,” Prine deadpanned. “Other than that, you don’t need that many.”
Iris DeMent, the country gospel singer who is Prine’s frequent duet partner and opener, arrived late in the set to sing “In Spite of Ourselves,” a premier wedding song for bickering couples, and “Paradise,” a closing anthem where she, Prine, and Wilber shared verses.
In December, Prine revealed he underwent surgery to remove cancer on his lung, an episode unrelated to a 1997 cancer diagnosis on his neck that he successfully beat, leading to a rejuvenation of touring and recording. Like Bob Dylan, Prine, 67, uses the creak of his voice to an advantage; the lines carry greater weight. The slender shadows his band casts pushes his voice to the front where each word matters.
Age has always mattered in Prine’s songs, especially the ones written when he was a young man. Onstage he reflected that he was drawn to stories he heard his parents and grandparents tell, and that he sought people of their generation out because he knew they held a key to comprehending life he didn’t at the time. “When I grow up that’s what I want to be — an old person,” he remembered thinking. “Voila!”
That led to “Hello in There,” performed on electric guitars. Wilber produced shimmering chords as Prine sang of trees growing stronger over the years, and old rivers wilder. He should know.
Humidity Built the Snowman
Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Six O’clock News
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Iron Ore Betty
Angel From Montgomery
Fish and Whistle
Christmas in Prison
Lets Talk Dirty In Hawaiian
Donald and Lydia
That’s the Way That the World Goes Round
She Is My Everything
Saddle in the Rain
Hello in There
In Spite of Ourselves
Here’s John Prine and his band performing “Hello in There”: