I can't remember the first time I saw John Prine performing live except it was sometime in the 1970s. It was either at the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Islands or at Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus. Like all folk singers, only part of the attraction of seeing him perform in person was the chance to hear favourite tunes being sung live as half the fun are the stories they have to tell between songs and their personalities. Let's face it, you're not going to see a folk musician for the fancy, high tech show they're going to put on. You want to share in an experience that only the combination of them and their music can create that never seems to be captured on a studio recording.
So I've always considered the idea of a live recording something of an oxymoron as far too few of them manage to recreate the feeling of being part of a community of people taking part in something special. No matter how much of the in-between song chat or crowd noise that might be included, you still feel like you're on the outside looking in cut off by a pane of glass or something similar. Now it's been a long time since I've listened to a live John Prine recording, mainly because the ones that I've heard before were disappointments for the reason described above, yet I decided to give it another try with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage on Prine's own Oh Boy Records label. Aside from the chance that this disc might bring him to life like previous ones hadn't, there was also the attraction that special guests were spotted throughout the disc helping out on old favourites.
Maybe it's because recording technology has improved (or those involved paid attention to how Arlo Guthrie records his live albums) but from the opening track, "Spanish Pipedream," to the final cut, "Paradise," it's like having Prine and his various accompanists being invisible presences in your living room. I'm not sure how to describe it, but there's the rawness and immediacy that you'd expect from a live performance. Each of the instruments stand out in the mix in about the same way you'd expect them to if you were hearing them on stage instead of being artfully blended together as they are in a studio.
The songs themselves have been lifted from various performances over the past couple of years and represent an interesting cross-section of his career including some favourites that he hasn't performed in a while like "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore." No matter what stage of his career the songs are from they each are performed with an enthusiasm that you only find in a live show when a performer is able to channel the energy generated by his audience back into his presentation. Normally I find audience noise included in live recordings to be self-serving and boring, but in this case it's used sparingly and only serves to emphasize how well Prine has connected with them.
A couple of years ago Prine put out a recording called In Spite Of Ourselves which featured him singing with some of his favourite female singers. One of those was Iris DeMent, with whom he sang the title song of the disc. "In Spite Of Ourselves" was originally written at the request of Billy Bob Thornton to be played over the credits of a movie he and Prine were appearing called Daddy And Them and it was highly appropriate for the movie. However since not many people probably ever saw it — as Prine mentions in his introduction it went straight to video — thankfully it's also a hysterical song in its own right. Part of the reason the song works so well is Prine and DeMent sound like they were born to sing together, as is borne out again later in the disc with their version of Prine's "Unwed Fathers." Neither has what one would call a smooth voice, but it's the rough edges that make them interesting and that catch in the ear.
While their voices might work together because of their similarities, sometimes opposites can make just as strong an impression. I've never heard Sara Watkins before, but she joins Prine for a beautiful rendition of one my favourite songs by him, "The Late John Garfield Blues." Not only does she supply some great vocals, she plays a lovely fiddle line in the middle of the tune which accents and highlights its emotional depth. A couple of tracks later Prine is joined by Emmylou Harris for a wonderful version of his "Angels From Montgomery." The contrast between his growled out lyrics and her delicate sound are a delight and give what's already a poignant song even more strength.
John Prine's music has never been what anyone would call structurally complicated. However its simplicity is what gives it strength because that allows his ideas and personality to shine through. While studio recordings have the capacity to reproduce a great deal of what makes him special, seeing him live has always revealed a little something more. Until now none of the live recordings I've heard have been able to bring the experience of a John Prine concert to life for people to enjoy at home. That's all changed with the release of John Prine: In Person & On Stage. For those of you have never had the pleasure of seeing him in person, or want to relive your memories of having seen him live, this is the best opportunity you'll have without actually attending a concert.