Concert Review: John Prine Loves Sad Songs, and Dang It, So Do We
"Man, I love sad songs. Down in Nashville, if you walk into a bluegrass club, I'm the guy in the corner with a pitcher of beer going, 'Play a sad one!'"
It's Friday night (June 21), and John Prine is 700-and-some miles from Music City, about halfway through his set in Buffalo, N.Y. It's a safe bet, though, that if the sold-out crowd at Shea's Performing Arts Center were to make that journey south, they'd be in that corner, too, drinking and hollering right along with him.
Prine, of course, has made a career out of sad songs -- or, at least, honest ones. Some of his stories are tragic ("Sam Stone" is haunting when Prine plays it mostly solo, his band only wandering back onstage near the end to offer light flourishes), and many of his lyrics will leave you in your feelings (watching the 70-something Prine sing "Hello in There" is positively heartwrenching), but his power truly rests in his honesty. Prine's songs are rich with detail, their lines imbued with real emotions, both depressing and upbeat.
And Prine has plenty of upbeat songs, too, even if they're not necessarily traditionally "happy" stories. On Friday night, "Knockin' on Your Screen Door" livened up the crowd early on, while "Spanish Pipedream (Blow Up Your TV)" had fans clapping and hollering along.
But then, Prine transitioned from "Spanish Pipedream" to "Caravan of Fools," quickly silencing that once-raucous crowd ... only to rile them up again with "Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)." "Boundless Love" -- another new song from 2018's lauded The Tree of Forgiveness -- brought with it a moment of levity when Prine forgot the words, but seamlessly and humorously (that is, with a muttered swear word or two) worked his way right back in.
Of course, Prine couldn't end the night without a little fancy footwork. "Lake Marie" concluded his set, and Prine danced his way offstage before returning for "When I Get to Heaven" and "Paradise," both of which kept the crowd on their feet. Yes, a John Prine show will, unsurprisingly, run you through the emotional ringer.
Near the end of his set, Prine's ace band left him onstage alone for "Souvenirs" and "Donald and Lydia," before he invited singer-songwriter Amanda Shires out for "Clocks and Spoons" and his beloved "In Spite of Ourselves." Shires' airy voice and Texas accent -- and her goofy asides -- were a spot-on stand-in for Prine's original duet partner, Iris DeMent.
Shires opened the show, too, offering simple, yet sparkling, renditions of the songs from her 2018 album To the Sunset, and a couple from her back catalog, a keyboardist and acoustic guitarist at her sides. She closed her set with Prine's own "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" -- Shires started covering the song on an international tour with Prine, after a joke she tried to play on him backfired -- as her friend and merch coordinator Kelly danced along for moral support.
"The reason that I don't have to wait tables ... and that I actually have a career of my own is because of John Prine," Shires shared from stage, "and I'm glad he's all of our heroes."
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