About five years ago I was watching TV avoiding any of my grad school reading and generally wasting time. I happened upon Austin City Limits featuring John Prine and Todd Snider. It was a great show but it left me hungry for more.
I soon went out and bought the Cd featured on the show Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. After moving from Bowling Green to Columbus, I was lucky enough to catch a Prine/Snider show at the Southern Theatre. The show was awesome and it motivated me to further investigate Prine. I bought the classic The Missing Years. Soon, however, I needed to go deeper and earlier so I dove in and bought the Great Days Anthology. Soon, despite my relative young age, I was singing John Prine oldies with the best of them. Even my wife was soon singing along.
Given my new found obsession with all thing John Prine I was excited to learn that he would again return to Columbus, this time at the Zoo. Last Friday night I was lucky enough to see John Prine live again, this time with Greg Trooper.
The show was unique in that the setting was the Columbus Zoo. As we approached the zoo it lacked the normal jam packed concert feel. Instead we just walked up to the zoo, handed over our tickets, were given some wrist bands, and pointed towards the amphitheatre. The amphitheatre is situated on the banks of the Olentagy river and on a gorgeous night, with the temperatures dropping to the high sixties, it seemed ideal.
We got their early (around 6 PM for an 8 PM start) as I was worried about seating. We brought both camp chairs and a blanket; deciding on the blanket because we could get closer and more centered (the areas for chairs were to the sides and mostly taken). Directly in front of the stage was a couple of rows of corporate tables which added a weird feel to the seating. As they were eating gourmet catering we were eating overpriced zoo food and sitting on wood chips. But it was a beautiful night and we were excited about seeing John Prine again so we mostly ignored the corporate types up front.
As I mentioned, Greg Trooper opened the show. He was actually quite good. He didn’t take himself that seriously and he actually got the crowd interested and involved. Apropos a John Prine opening act, he is a little hard to label. Trooper is an Italian from New Jersey transplanted to Nashville. His music is really folk/singer song writer with a dash of country. I think I might check out his latest album Straight Down Rain as the title track (or I should say the track from whence the title comes) and Lovin’ Never Came That Easy both sounded good. After his short set it was back to waiting.
Once John Prine came out, however, all was forgotten. How does one describe John Prine? Folk, country, rock, blues, alternative? Tender, cynical, funny, dark? He is all of those things and more. He is just a unique personality and his music reflects that uniqueness. For this show he started out folksy with a touch of wit by launching Spanish Pipedream (AKA Blow Up Your TV). He went on to sing most of his classic hits, from the dark Sam Stone, Hello in there, and Donald and Lydia; and the humorous Illegal Smile, Dear Abbey, In spite of Ourselves, and Please Don’t Bury Me; to the tender Angel From Montgomery, All the Best, and Far From Me.
It really was quite something. He had the crowd rocking and laughing one minute and silent and in awe another. Two members from the Lost Dogs Band backed him up for the first 45 minutes or so and then he did almost an hour by himself before they rejoined him for the end. The night was so peaceful and beautiful that when he sang his poetic and touching lyrics it seemed almost surreal. You could lay down, look up and see the stars, here the crickets in the background and listen as John sang touching and powerful lyrics. Or just sit and laugh at the humor and lyrical double entendres he weaves into his songs. But just when you thought he was getting soft he launched a rocking rendition of the Carter Family classic Bear Creek and a rousing Grandpa Was a Carpenter. And as a finale they, including Greg Trooper, gave an extended version of Paradise. Throughout the show I just kept thinking “wow, what a musical talent.” How many acts these days can keep a crowd practically silent by the force of his lyrics and then bring them to loud laughter and raucous cheering the next minute? John Prine was sharp and hard hitting, tender and sincere, funny and mischievous, humble and playful, and just plain entertaining.