John Prine arrives at every show with an arsenal of classic, homespun country/folk songs and a surefire way of introducing them, usually with deadpan humor, and then delivering them assuredly. Satisfaction is always expected, but sometimes the payoff exceeds expectations.
Such was the case Saturday night at the Midland theater, where Prine drew a crowd of more than 1,500 and where he, his band and a small crew of special guests kept the big crowd in their thrall all night.
Saturday’s show opened with a set from Amanda Shires, a Texas singer-songwriter and instrumentalist who favors the fiddle but also plays guitar. She was joined on stage by her husband, another renowned songwriter, Jason Isbell, who has filled plenty of theaters on his own and who will headline this year’s Middle of the Map Fest in May.
Both Shires and Isbell made guest appearances during Prine’s headlining set. So did Iris DeMent, a former Kansas City resident, now living in Iowa. She joined Prine for a four-song interlude that included “We’re Gonna Take the Garbage Out” and “In Spite of Ourselves,” a randy take on marriage, delivered from two diverging perspectives. Prine introduced that song by relating DeMent’s initial reaction to the song after he’d asked her to record it with him: “Not as long as my mother is still alive.”
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Her set, which ignited a joyous uproar, was just one component to a show that showcased some of Prine’s legendary song catalog but also showed off his tight-knit four-piece band and his compelling way with words and turns of phrases. Like few of his peers, Prine can capture universal moments and sentiments, casting them in lyrics that resonate and sustain their potency for decades.
Like all stellar shows, this one felt like one prolonged highlight as Prine skipped and jumped from one classic song to another, songs that tell tales of misfits and outcasts, of relationships in various states of glory or despair, of people marginalized by their lots in life, of hearts in need of repair, songs like “Glory of True Love,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” “Souvenirs,” which he dedicated to Steve Goodman, “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery.”
Throughout the show, Prine introduced songs with dry, witty, self-effacing anecdotes, many of which he has repeated for decades but which, like his songs, sustain their charm and punch. His four-piece band colored his songs with warm touches and refined flourishes, especially guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist David Jacques, who applied the bow to his bass evocatively on tracks like “Hello In There” and “Sam Stone.”
Prine delivered a few songs solo, including “Fish and Whistle” and “Big Old Goofy World,” showcasing a voice that has conquered throat cancer yet sounded remarkably clear and strong.
Toward the end of the set, he was joined by Shires, and they performed a rowdy, honky-tonk version of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music,” a track from his “For Better or Worse,” a collection of duets released in 2016. Isbell also joined in on “Storm Windows,” the title track to an album released more than 35 years ago.
He closed with “Paradise,” a languid waltz that visits the area of western Kentucky where his parents were raised and describes the ravages of coal mining. Like every song that preceded it, “Paradise” was rife with imagery and detail and set to a melody that coaxed most in the large crowd to sing-along with its dire message: “Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where paradise lay / Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”
Love, Love, Love; Glory of True Love; Long Monday; Taking a Walk; Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore; Quiet Man; Six O’Clock News; Souvenirs; Grandpa Was a Carpenter; Hello In There; Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out; (We’re Not) The Jet Set; We Could You and I; In Spite of Ourselves; Angel From Montgomery; It’s a Big Old Goofy World; Fish and Whistle; Sam Stone; Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music; Storm Windows; Bear Creek Blues; Paradise.