Prine time at Koka Booth Ampitheatre

by Ryan Snyder

John Prine is joined onstage by Old Crow Medicine Show during last Friday’s performance.

If dreams were lightning and thunder were desire, I could fill out this entire review of John Prine’s show at Cary’s Koka Booth Ampitheatre last Friday night using only his best lyrics and sound like the second coming of Lester Bangs. Prine is simply that good. He isn’t as prolific as he once was, but few artists are as they enter their

later years. What he has is a body of work so original and definitive that few could emulate his brand of protean existentialism no matter how hard they tried. Every new addition to his catalog of Rust Belt country, no matter how far between they are these days, is instantly familiar and intimate.

“She Is My Everything,” for example, off of his last solo studio release in 2005, Fair and Square, was a song he told the crowd he had written about his wife, Fiona, that might as well describe the reverence any man might feel toward his lady. Not that it’s generic in any sense at all, but it hits on the essence of

the funny little things a guy might like about the woman he loves with the kind of embellishment she deserves. “She know everybody/ from Muhammad Ali/ to teaching Bruce Lee how to do karate/ She can lead a parade/ while putting on her shades/ in her Masarati.” It’s perfectly sentimental and not sappy in the least, which lends sense that even after 30 years, he’s gaining new fans all the time.

It helps when he utilizes the likes of Old Crowe Medicine Show to open his shows, of course. The old-time folksters, who would join Prine for an encore of “Paradise,” lent an even more youthful element to an already bipartisan crowd that stretched all over the lush lawn of Koka Booth and packed its reserved seating. It was still nearly impossible to tell who was there to see who, as nearly everyone was out of their seat singing the chorus to “Illegal Smile,” the first song found on Prine’s first album and still one of the favorites to this day. Despite it becoming a kind of stoner anthem over the years, Prine insists the song is about the state of mind he’d arrive at while writing. His illegal smile moments, he’s said, were something he wasn’t sure others could understand because it only occurred in his headspace. You get the feeling that Prine knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the words “Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone/ no I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun,” however, as more than a few in the crowds were putting on illegal smiles of their own.

The volume at Koka Booth has long been the predominant issue with the lush outdoor venue, but Prine’s sound was perfectly suited to complement the venues single weakness. His sparse accompaniment of guitarist/mandolinist Jason Wilbur and his longtime bassist David Jacques weren’t going to blow the leaves off of the trees, but the three did combine to create a sound that lent an intimate feel

that wafted over every corner of the amphitheater. As if the story of the heroin-addicted war hero “Sam Stone” or the lonely elderly couple “Hello in There” didn’t already cut right to the bone, hearing every word perfectly gave the feeling that you were almost right on stage with Prine. He’s keenly aware of which line in every song will be the one to give you that punched-in-the-gut feeling, so he lays on it hard, too. “How the hell can a person/ go to work in the morning/ come home in the evening/ and have nothing to say,” he sang during “Angel from Montgomery with a little bit of strain in his gravelly voice.

Ten years removed from his battle with throat cancer, Prine’s voice help up admirably for the entire evening, still amazing considering how many of his fans actually prefer the current incarnation of his voice. The Dylanesque warble is long gone and in its place is one that’s husky and grandfatherly, yet soothingly melodic at the same time. Even his run of solo songs mid-set did he sound completely confident in his voice, even when he did turn the last verse of “Illegal Smile” over to the crowd.

So how does a guy like Prine go his entire career and not have a single album in the Billboard Top 50? He’s clearly made some kind of impact on the music-listening world. He’ll have a tribute album in his honor on June 25 featuring the likes of My Morning Jacket, Justin Townes Earle, the Avett Brothers, Deer Tick and the Drive-By Truckers. Each has borrowed something from Prine, whether its brilliance via simplicity or a knack for writing a sad song from the heart. To paraphrase “I Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody,” 20,000 John Prine fans (at that particular show) can’t be wrong.