On his opening number Saturday at the sold-out Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, John Prine sounded liked Bob Dylan on a bad day – and that’s not good. Prine, who has battled both neck and lung cancer, apologized for the frog in his throat and predicted it would be gone in five songs.
Indeed, the croak disappeared and charm and humor emerged between songs. The end result was a rewarding evening of first-rate country-folk songs.
Prine, 68, fills his often melancholy songs with vividly sketched everyday people and simple truths. He’ll sing about a Vietnam vet who struggles in his return to society or seniors who lead lonely lives.
His voice, while never pretty, was plain-spokenly effective Saturday, especially with his simple melodies. Prine brought a little country flavoring with the guitar of Jason Wilber and the mandolin of Pat McLaughlin. (There was a bassist, longtime Prine associate Dave Jacques, but no drummer.) Opening act Kendel Carson added some fiddle and duet vocals on a few numbers including “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.”
Prine apologized for having had to postpone the concert, which was originally scheduled for April. The sell-out crowd was worshipful, singing along with the better-known numbers and shouting out comments of adoration.
Prine had plenty of pithy comments of his own. “I keep this song in mothballs until people start talking about presidential elections,” he said in introducing “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore.” “I wrote this before the Civil War broke out.”
It was one of many highlights, along with “Souvenirs” (dedicated to his recently deceased manager Al Bunetta), the trenchant advice treat “Dear Abby” and the epic story song “Lake Marie, during which Prine danced a bit.
During the two-hour, 24-song set, the Chicago-launched, Nashville-based singer-songwriter did a few selections on solo acoustic guitar, including “Far From Me,” for which he sang the first line and realized it was too high for him. So he stopped and started over in a new key – and found his voice.
Prine’s set list on Saturday: Fish and Whistle/ Long Monday/ Taking a Walk/ Spanish Pipedream/ Picture Show/ Humidity Built the Snowman/ Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore/ Grandpa Was a Carpenter/ Six O’clock News/ Souvenirs/ Iron Ore Betty/ Hello in There/ Angel from Montgomery/ How Lucky/ Dear Abby/ Far From Me/ Bottomless Lake/ Donald and Lydia/ In Spite of Ourselves/ Speed of the Sound of Loneliness/ Sam Stone/ Bear Creek Blues/ Lake Marie/ Paradise