in performance: john prine/amanda shires with jason isbell

john prine.

john prine.

The defining moment of last night’s sold out John Prine performance at the Singletary Center for the Arts came in the closing minutes. Never one for long goodbyes, the veteran songsmith summed up an immensely spirited two-hour performance with show opener Amanda Shires, her Americana celeb husband Jason Isbell (“our special guest and her special guest,” as Prine put it) and the three stringmen that have long served as his touring band (guitarists Jason Wilber and Pat McLaughlin and bassist Dave Jacques) for a near-euphoric encore version of Paradise.

The song remains one of Prine’s most familiar works, so its inclusion in the setlist was hardly a surprise. But given the regional resonance of the tune (it details a Muhlenberg County countryside from the singer’s youth where coal definitely did not keep the figurative lights on) and the obvious joy triggered by having a pair of new generation disciples singing along, Paradise became a celebration. The cherubic, 68 year old Prine beamed like a schoolkid after it concluded and exited the stage with a citywide smile on his face. In short, the song he should have grown the weariest of playing had become a multi-generational anthem instilled with renewed vigor.

There were loads of less obvious treats, as well. Capitalizing on the camaraderie, Prine also enlisted Shires and Isbell for a trio version of what was perhaps the least likely offering of the evening, the bittersweet title tune from his 1980 album Storm Windows. All three hammered home the chorus, Prine and Isbell swapped verses and Shires iced everything with a fiddle solo full of Appalachian gusto. From a more playful terrain came a duet version of In Spite of Ourselves played as a sparring session between Prine and Shires.

The quartet tunes with Wilber, McLaughlin and Jacques formed the basis of the concert, from the three tunes off of 2005’s Fair and Square album that began the set (Glory of True Love, Long Monday and Taking a Walk) to darker vintage fare (Six O’Clock News, Souvenirs) that reached back to the early ‘70s. But the band’s most dramatic collaboration came when the four returned to the mid ‘80s for Lake Marie, a scrapbook meditation that mixed cultural folklore, a marriage on the rocks and TV coverage of a murder in the wilderness.

“You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?” sang Prine as the song headed into its homestretch. The audience, well versed in the lyrics, shouted back the grim reply: “Shadows.” That earned a grin, too

“Thank you, class,” Prine replied.

A brief unaccompanied section by the singer, which included a calm but still discomforting My Mexican Home, concluded with Sam Stone, the harrowing saga of a displaced, drug-addicted war veteran who dies alone of an overdose. Perhaps more than any other tune in the repertoire last night, Sam Stone benefited most from the vocal creases and coarseness of age, a reflection of both its potently succinct lyrics (“Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios”) and its sadly unfortunate topicality.

“I still sing this song at every show because there are still a lot of old veterans around,” Prine remarked.

Shires’ 40 minute opening set was a delight, as well. Though possessed with a voice full of pure country charm, her songs deviated from any kind of roots music symmetry. The show opening The Garden (What a Mess) possessed an air of somber mystery that brought some of the less prog-ish songs of Kate Bush to mind while Bulletproof set a portrait of hippie legend with references of weaponry and self-preservation to a neo-Spanish lilt.

Husband Isbell, an unadvertised addition to the proceedings, was largely an accompanist, engaging in a brief but feisty electric guitar and fiddle flare-up near the end of Shake the Walls and adding tasty slide colors to Mineral Wells. But he and Shires met on equal terms for a lovely cover of the underappreciated Warren Zevon gem Mutineer.

That didn’t keep a few Isbell fans in the audience from the misreading the occasion and calling out for several of his tunes (Cover Me Up earned the most vocal requests). But Mrs. Isbell remained in the driver’s seat of this set.

“If you want to request any of Jason’s songs, you’ll have to go his show tomorrow,” Shires told the crowd. “In Chicago.”



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