What might John Prine have wanted for his 60th birthday a couple of weeks ago? Maybe the household-name renown of Bruce Springsteen, whose most poignant songs seem built from the Prine blueprint but without the zinging wit and whimsy? Or the fame and fortune of Jimmy Buffett, who shares Prine’s whimsy but lacks his depth?
Nah. In concert Friday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, the impish Prine looked like a man who got just what he wanted: a rich muse, a loyal if small following and, most important, his health after cancer treatment a few years ago. In fact, being happy with what you’ve got was one thematic thread of the show, which inspiringly paired the Illinois-raised Prine with relative newcomer Jimmy James, leader of the powerful Louisville, Ky., band My Morning Jacket.
To open the show, James, with fellow Jacket Carl Broemel accompanying, sang lonesome prairie songs -- he sounded like an otherworldly Everly Brother in a broadcast from a lonesome prairie on the moon. The entrancing air more than made up for the lack of abandon by the full band.
Prine, in contrast, could have been performing in your living room. With crisp Tennessee Two-type backing from guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques, he spun nearly 40 years’ worth of common-place absurdities, everyday tall tales and miniature universalities of heartbreak and joy with his regular-guy Midwestern drawl. From the satirical Vietnam protest “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” which he explained that he’d “stuffed and mounted” in 1975 but revived of late “at the request of the president,” to the wryly cautionary tale of naked ambition in 2005’s “Crazy as a Loon,” the old songs sounded fresh, the more recent ones like venerable standards.
As for his own ambitions or regrets, he clearly heeds the words he sang from his 1973 advice-column spoof “Dear Abby”: “You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.” And introducing “Souvenirs,” Prine said that the rueful tune was his mom’s favorite, and when he’d play it for her, she’d make whatever he wanted for dinner. Now that’s household-name stature that really means something.