The Paul Zollo Blog: John Prine and Jason Isbell at The Greek Theater in Los Angeles

Photo by Paul Zollo
Photo by Paul Zollo

Los Angeles, May 13, 2016

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A John Prine concert is always a homecoming of sorts, and a happy one, a touching of a touchstone of truth and humor, and the reminder of the perpetual power of a great song. In these days of chaos and noise, reconnecting directly with the purity and poignancy of a Prine song is more meaningful than ever. It’s about sharing the warmth, wisdom and whimsy of a remarkable soul, a guy who sees all the sorrow and humor of this “big old goofy world” connected, and has succeeded in translating that perspective into some of the most touching songs ever written.

And so it was a wise choice to pair him on a double-bill with Jason Isbell, a songwriter several decades younger than Prine, but who carries on the tradition of building songs not on loops and samples, but on heart and soul. Isbell, along with Amanda Shires on violin and vocals, delivered brilliantly dimensional songs like “24 Frames” and “Elephant” which, like John Prine songs, simply go a lot farther than most songs go. “Elephant” is about that thing in the room nobody wants to speak on, and explores vividly the ways humans weave our ways through life. Like Prine’s brilliant “Angel From Montgomery,” it’s about all that is unsaid, and why. They received several standing ovations during their set, as did Prine.

Delivering his songs with great purity – just two vocals, one guitar and one violin – Isbell focused the crowd on that realm where Prine and great songwriting forever reside – in the essential human equation of words and music combined. He also brought us one of Warren Zevon’s most beautiful and least-known songs, “Mutineer,” sung with aching sweetness in perfect harmony, summoning up the spirit of that beloved songwriter who has already been gone for a long time now, but who, like Prine, has given us a songbook of miracle songs.

Then came the man himself. Any chance to see John Prine in concert is a reason to rejoice. It’s a celebration of the essential power of a perfectly conceived song. Prine, as his lifelong fans know already, has a chain of masterpiece songs. Miracle songs, really. The kind other songwriters marvel at, maybe not asking, but thinking, the eternal question: Just how does somebody write a song like that?

It’s the reason so many legendary songwriters have long included him on the very short list of songwriter’s songwriters, up there with a guy named Dylan who marveled himself at the wonder of a Prine song [“existential Midwestern mindtrips,” he called them.]

On this night, with his great four-piece band featuring multi-instrumentalist (guitar, harmonica, mandolin and harmony vocals) Jason Wilber, Dave Jacques on acoustic and electric bass and vocals, and the fiery Pat McLaughlin on vocals and  incendiary mandolin (“beatin’ that mandolin into submission,” as Prine put it.), Prine brought the classics new and old, leaping directly into the happy fray with the ecstatic “Glory of True Love” linking to “Long Monday.” With Pat, he did a funny love song they wrote together, the rollicking “You’re Daddy’s Little Pumpkin.” And he brought us all to tears with the early classic, “Souvenirs,” dedicated to two departed friends Steve Goodman, and also his longtime manager Al Bunetta, who died last year.

Also thankfully included were two hypnotic meditations on modern times, “Taking A Walk” and “Lake Marie.” The latter combines a broken marriage, Native American history, a murder covered on the TV news and ongoing human yearning all into one remarkable whole, unified by one his most memorably melodic refrains. Both songs focus, not unlike “Angel” did years earlier, on that place beyond words, that place best described with pure music.

He gave us the sacred triumvirate among Prine-fans of “Sam Stone,” “Hello In There” and “Angel From Montgomery.” They are three songs from his debut album, all written, remarkably, when John was still a mailman on his route back in Maywood, Illinois, traversing vast frozen tundras of Midwestern snow and ice mixed with the Blackhawk winds and assorted canines to deliver the mail.

These songs arrived like miracles back in 1971, when he first emerged from postal obscurity onto the international stage, and resound even more poignantly and beautifully all these years later. Which is not to say he hasn’t written countless classics ever since. And he has. So many, he couldn’t begin to play all of them. He is one of the few songwriters who can instill genuine humor into songs – as well as authentic poignancy – and quite often in the same song. Which is why his songs resound so deeply: like life itself they are sad and funny at the same time.  It’s why other songwriters marvel. It’s there in the hilarious and heartbreaking “In Spite Of Ourselves” – which is both bawdy and tenderly romantic – and most of all, essentially human, that genuine quality at the heart of all his songs. These things aren’t contrived; they are songs which emerge from a singular perspective, one he’s sustained over the years –wistful whimsy.

“One of my lifelong dreams,” he said while introducing “Hello In There,” “ has been someday to become an old person.” The crowd laughed and applauded. Then he added: “Congratulations.”

It’s true he’s not as young as he once was, and neither is much of his audience, those who have been there with him since the start. But the songs don’t age. That fragile sense of existential emptiness still hangs in the center of “Angel From Montgomery” as powerfully as ever, and maybe more so.  Unlike other songwriters who seem to grow distant from their early songs, the ones written at the start, Prine seems to only have grown more deeply into his songs. The delicate but dynamic pathos always at the heart of “Hello In There” is only augmented by all the years gone by since he first sang it, and since we all first heard it. He built these songs to last, and like the old trees which just grow stronger and the rivers which grow wilder, his songs seem to just become more powerful and deep.

This was a crowd that was passionate about the songs being sung, hanging on every word, and appreciative for the depth of song being shared. At the conclusion of Prine’s set, Jason and Amanda returned, and joined him for several songs, including a resplendently hilarious and touching “In Spite Of Ourselves.” Then came yet another classic, also from Prine’s debut, “Paradise,” a song which still, sadly, resounds as powerfully as ever.

After the final encore, as all the musicians joined together behind him, John Prine came to center stage and took a long and happy bow. The crowd cheered, and continued to applaud long after he left the stage. Smiles and tears abounded, as people seemed sort of stunned. There are things, even in modern times, that do pierce the dissonance and distractions of our frenetic electronic everyday, and those things are called songs. Timeless and timely, funny and sad, with old tunes as warm as a campfire on a cold night, and sung by this friend we’ve known for so many years, few things are better. Always there is the recognition in his songs that we’re in this human thing together, all of us, and though there’s always a lot of sorrow involved, there’s also love and laughter. Even still. May Mr. Prine continue to shine, and tour for years to come.

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