John Prine doesn't come to town very often, and there are a *lot* of serious Prine fans in the world. When he announced a date at the Schubert in Boston's Theater District a few months ago, it sold out very quickly. And then it was announced that Iris Dement would share the bill with him ... but tickets were already gone! My friend tried to buy tickets a few weeks later and the best price he could get was $300 per,
Made a quick trip into the city, parked on Beacon Hill, and walked quickly down to a crowded Theater District on a chilly early-Spring Saturday (4/9/16). We climbed and climbed up to the balcony, and then down and down to our second-row-center balcony seats. We could see the stage fine, but I have a lot of gripes about the Schubert.
The seats were more uncomfortable than seats at Fenway Park, no lie! When I sat and the seat folded down it was pushing against the back of my left calf, though my foot was crammed up against the seat in front of me. There was 4 inches of leg room by my rough measurement! My whole left abdomen was cramped by the end of the night.
The stairs must have been illegal!! I did not see handicapped access up to the top of the balcony ... it was so small up there I don't know if there'd be room. And there was a balcony bar up there but when I joined the long, long line we didn't move for a while. And then I asked one of the people walking away from it with a Miller Lite tallboy and a frown if that was all they had there. No, they had cheap North European lager as well, at an outrageous price.
And the sound in the balcony was not worth a high-price ticket, which we had paid. We could hear each instrument (and learned that the best way to enjoy the concert was to concentrate on them in turn), but the mix was not homogeneous enough way up high in the balcony ... drifts of this and of that. A bit more volume would have been welcome, but you often had to infer what sound they were aiming at.
Anyway, it was an awesome concert if you allowed for the Shubert's shortcomings. Iris opened on a beautiful sounding (but poorly miked, in the balcony) grand piano with Chris Donahue on bass and Jon Graboff on guitar and pedal steel.
I've opined before that some of the songs that Iris released on her Sing the Delta record are some of the best ever, and I was thrilled that she opened with The Kingdom Has Already Come (one of the best of the best) and did Livin' On the Inside and Sing the Delta, bracketing three songs from her more challenging The Trackless Woods record. She was chatty, the most relaxed I've ever seen her on stage, and introduced the songs from her project with Anna Akhmatova lyrics very well, though at length.
Donahue and Graboff were perfect with her, and though I had issues with the sound, her work on the grand piano was inspiring. You think of a great pianist striding with the left hand and picking out a melody, but her right hand took the lead here and hammered out the soul of the songs. I loved it.
I was a bit surprised that Iris was doing an "opening set." I had thought that there'd be more interaction between the two performers, but she finished up her great set, and then they re-set the stage for John's band, without a mike for Iris. When they finished arranging and tuning the instruments, they were set way back on the stage ... the monitors were placed 20 feet back from the edge. Stations for 4 performers were spread across the width of the stage, and every station had 3-5 instruments set up at it. And they played all of them!
John came out, strummed that guitar hard, and went right at it. Here's the setlist:
Ramblin' Fever (Merle Haggard cover)
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Glory of True Love
Taking a Walk
Please Don't Bury Me
Six O'Clock News
Far From Me
Grandpa Was a Carpenter
Hello in There
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Iron Ore Betty
Fish and Whistle
Angel From Montgomery
You Got Gold (John solo)
Illegal Smile (John solo)
Milwaukee Here I Come (With Iris DeMent)
We Could (With Iris DeMent)
In Spite of Ourselves (With Iris DeMent)
John was accompanied by (left to right) Jason Wilber on guitars and mandolin, Pat McLaughlin on mandolin and guitars, and Dave Jacques on double-bass and two different electric basses. They were all fantastic, and the arrangements of the classic Prine setlist were note-perfect.
John has always had a raspy voice, and it was also wavering on the first few songs. But then he warmed up and the silver started to flow, and did not stop. He was aggressive of course on the acoustic guitar, switching between four different ones, but his cadence and volume were the John Prine sound of your dreams.
I was delighted that he concentrated on his earlier work, and so happy to hear Far From Me, Souvenirs, Hello In There, Six O'Clock News, and Fish and Whistle, along with the incredible mega-hits (if you like John Prine) of Speed Of the Sound of Loneliness and Angel From Montgomery. John dedicated that last one to Bonnie Raitt naturally, after sending the opener out to Merle Haggard, who had just passed away the day before.
The guys walked off stage and left John to do a couple of solo acoustic songs, including Illegal Smile, for which he let the crowd sing the choruses. Nobody held back. I was thinking that this could be the last time he'll be in Massachusetts when the particular smile he's talking of is illegal ... might have to update the lyrics.
And speaking of the crowd, they were totally psyched. The balcony was packed (I assume the orchestra and mezzanine were too) and there were lots of people shouting out lyrics, song titles, cheering place-name references, and freaking out. I think everyone there was a John Prine fanatic.
The guys came back out and he did Sam Stone, for which he didn't encourage a sing-along. This was a serious rendition, straight from the heart of the songwriter to ours. Then Iris came out and they whooped it up for a few duets.
He concluded his set with what had been shouted out a number of times, Lake Marie ... one of his best songs, and from the latter part of his career. We all knew every bit of the song of course, and when he started the verse about the four sausages on the grill, there was a low hiss from the crowd, that turned louder and louder. They was SIZZLIN'!
Short pause while we all went nuts after they walked off stage, and then they came back to play one of his signature songs, Paradise, which he introduced with the information that the Peabody Coal Mine is going bankrupt! Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenburg County?
Wow, that was a fantastic show, though I was afraid all through it that I wouldn't be able to stand on my crippled leg when it was time to leave, let alone walk down 4 long flights of stairs.
Well, we finally filed out and the Theater District was a madhouse! It was so crowded with people that cars on the street were not able to move. There were streams of people going out of or into every building in the area, including some fancy club-goers in nylon soccer shirts and short, glittery dresses on a evening in the 30s. We thought about stopping somewhere for a drink, but just went home instead!