John Prine Brings Rich Song Catalog For “Summer’s End” Performance in Portland, OR (SHOW REVIEW/PHOTOS)

In our chaotic, hyperactive times of media overload, there isn’t much opportunity to savor. Art – music in particular – gets released only to be digested quickly before people move onto the next thing. But John Prine’s songs were always meant to be savored, as it’s impossible to grasp his rootsy genius with a quick listen. The words and characters of his songs are best treated like sips of fine wine, developing a deeper meaning with each listen. Lucky for us, this national treasure is not only still making music – most recently with this year’s brilliant album The Tree of Forgiveness – he is playing it live. The sold out crowd that flocked to the Oregon Zoo in Portland on Saturday, September 21 were a mix of fans young and old that came out to savor the everyman poet brilliance of John Prine.

Kicking off the show was Kentucky country artist Kelsey Waldon, who has been steadily gaining steam with her honeysweet, naturally twangy voice and downhome lyrics. She also has a fan in John Prine, who will release her new album White Noise/White Lines on his Oh Boy Records. Playing solo acoustic, most likely due to this being a one-off rescheduled show, Waldon played mostly songs off her upcoming album. Like her fellow Kentuckian Loretta Lynn, Waldon has a penchant for balancing country girl sweetness with resilient, no bullshit toughness. This was best captured in her older tune “All By Myself”, a fiery outlaw country number when played with a full band that took on a more intimate tone played solo and served as a proper sendout.

Backed by his razor sharp band, Prine would gracefully make his way through nearly fifty years of songs. His band provided the perfect sonic cushion for his rich lyrics, never overshadowing the beauty of the words or Prine’s gruff and soulful voice. On “Six O’Clock News”, guitarist Jason Wilbur would fuse his harmonica with multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin’s pedal steel for a high and lonesome sound, and on new song “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” drummer Kenneth Blevins would add a thumping beat to complement Kaplin’s feisty mandolin playing. Prine wouldn’t dwell too much on his new album, but the songs he did play were especially well received. His simple yet ominous ballad “Caravan of Fools” was prefaced as being “about the president’s cabinet”, stirring up laughs and cheers from the crowd, while the sweet and heartfelt “Summer’s End” felt perfectly appropriate to play on one of the final days of summer with an autumn chill creeping in.

As one might expect, some of the strongest reactions of the night came from Prine’s best-known songs, some of which found the songwriter sharing his humorous tales of how they came to be. The wildly clever and fun “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” was introduced with Prine explaining how he messed up the location of the original story, an anecdote he has probably shared thousands of times onstage yet still found him chuckling at the silliness of it as if he had just written the tune. “Hello In There” yielded a deeply personal and emotional power that caused many in the crowd to tear up at its sentiment, with repeated shouts of “we love you” coming from the audience (an annoyingly common occurrence throughout the show). The sweeping and warm “Angel From Montgomery” would also shine with its vibrant downhome spirituality. Some of the most poignant moments of the night came when the band left the stage and it was just Prine and his guitar. Here the lyrics would become more vivid, with the starkly beautiful imagery of “Mexican Home” wafting across the venue, and “Sam Strong”, with its tale of PTSD and drug addiction, feeling more haunting and relevant than ever.

Pushing 73, Prine could easily sit back and rest on his laurels as one of the great songwriters in the lexicon of American music. But when your songs are timeless and you’re still creative, you might as well keep playing for people. Portland’s performance was anything but phoned in or burned out, as Prine seemed sharp as a nail and in fine spirits. While he may be physically older, Prine played his songs with warmth and heart as if he had just written them. In return, the audience savored every moment.

All photos by Greg Homolka. 

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