Review: A loving, intimate and socially distanced tribute to John Prine
There was something slightly sad about watching artists perform inside emptied-out spaces — an auditorium, a restaurant, a record store — in the virtual concert salute to singer-songwriter John Prine that premiered Thursday night on YouTube.
The spaces were empty, of course, due to fears of spreading COVID-19, the disease that took Prine’s life in April at age 73 after a widely admired career that spanned decades. But it wasn’t just the reminder of COVID’s persistent threat that got you down; it was also the fact that Prine when he was alive sang so eagerly about people — about their dreams and their frustrations and all the ways they rely on one another.
In vivid yet plainspoken records that sat at the intersection of folk, country and soft-touch R&B, Prine illuminated the inner lives of veterans and mailmen and folks getting on in years; a former Army man and post office worker himself, he famously earned praise from Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson for the empathy and understanding in his songs.
Not seeing people where they should’ve been, then, gave a touch of melancholy to the otherwise warm “Picture Show: A Tribute Celebrating John Prine,” which featured Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Margo Price and Brandi Carlile, among others, each doing their thing separately instead of crowding the stage before an audience at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, say, as they likely would have in normal times. (A fundraiser for several organizations working to support families affected by the coronavirus, the two-hour show organized by Prine’s widow, Fiona Whelan Prine, will be available to replay on demand through Sunday on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch.)
“John was a simple, humble, complex, funny, heartbreaking guy, and it showed in his songs,” Billy Bob Thornton said in one of a handful of eulogies delivered by celebrity pals such as Bill Murray and Stephen Colbert. “He could make you laugh and cry in just one line of a song.”
Indeed, right after “Picture Show,” Prine’s team released what it’s calling his final recording: “I Remember Everything,” a stately acoustic ballad in which an old man looks back tenderly at his life — including “every song I ever sang on a guitar out of tune.”
With archival video footage peppered among the new performances, the concert covered most of Prine’s best-known material — including half of his instant-classic 1971 debut — though it had some deep cuts too for the obsessives he seemed to attract almost from the get-go.
Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, opened the show with “Hello in There,” Shires’ mournful fiddle licks echoing through a deserted Ryman; Carlile, Shires’ bandmate in the Highwomen, did a spirited “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” from a home-studio situation decorated with twinkle lights.
Todd Snider, the punky roots-rocker, was appropriately haggard in “Illegal Smile” (about a guy who “chased a rainbow down a one-way street dead end”), while Prine’s two twentysomething sons, Jack and Tommy, did “Paradise” at the singer’s favorite soul-food joint, Arnold’s Country Kitchen.
Alone in what looked like his bedroom, the biz-hating Simpson scowled his way through “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” from the mid-’80s, after Prine gave up on major labels and started his own indie, Oh Boy; Church took a similar tack for “She Is My Everything,” from 2005’s Grammy-winning “Fair & Square,” which he performed in an unfilled theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Musgraves, accompanying herself on a pink acoustic guitar, sang the wry “Spanish Pipedream” but also did her own “Burn One With John Prine,” which she said she wrote shortly after she moved to Nashville in the hopes that she’d someday meet the man who “singlehandedly influenced me and my songwriting more than anybody else on the planet.”
She did eventually meet him, she said after the song, though they didn’t get high together. “He was like, ‘I don’t do that anymore,’” Musgraves remembered with a smile.
Vince Gill sang an original too: the easygoing “Some Things Never Get Old,” with its fond recollection of “ice-cold beer in the summertime / Pickin’ on the back porch with brother John Prine.”
To finish the show, Bonnie Raitt performed — what else? — “Angel From Montgomery,” which she handled no less sensitively than she ever does. But more moving in fact was a kind of closing benediction by Whelan, in which she recounted seeing the title “When I Get to Heaven” scrawled on a legal pad as her husband, not in the greatest health, was working on what ended up being his last studio album, 2018’s “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
“When I saw that title, I was horrified — and curious,” she said — a frank admission from an artist’s partner that made you realize how infrequently we hear that point of view.
Prine, always looking to comprehend those around him, would’ve been impressed.
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