By MARK GUARINO | Daily Herald Music Critic
November 20, 1999
John Prine sang through a smile all night. He’d frequently duck away from his microphone, shake his head and chuckle at the cornball lyrics he couldn’t believe were coming from his mouth.
He had reason to laugh. Early into his homecoming show at the Old Town School of Folk Music Friday, Prine reminded the crowd he had been out of commission for a few years, suffering and then recuperating from neck cancer.
That brought the expected support from the crowd, but it wasn’t particularly needed. His performance Friday – the first of four sold-out nights – was its sole selling point, spirited and warm and often out-loud funny.
Together, Prine and the Old Town School go back to the late ’60s when he was a student there, graduating to the neighborhood’s folk circuit and ending up a club phenomenon and then recording star. Since then, he’s moved to Nashville and attracted the type of prestige among songwriters few have.
The Old Town School has evolved too. It’s not even in Old Town anymore, moving further north to the Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Now 53, Prine has not played inside the school’s confines since the late ’70s. The excitement of his return was apparent as the crowd sang the old favorite “Illegal Smile” with him or hushed completely in reverence to the mournful story of “Sam Stone.”
Done up in a black suit with an old-timey string tie, Prine never seemed liked a sleek Nashville cat, but instead someone you’d find nestled in a bar somewhere further up Lincoln Ave.
Likewise, his raspy voice, now well aged, helped deliver songs whose lyrics grounded them in workingman plainspeak. Like the build-up of corny cliches in “It’s A Big Old Goofy World,” it’s a knack Prine has primed fully for laughs or, in the case of “The Missing Years,” humor and sadness meeting somewhere on the same line.
Prine has long been a songwriter whose catalog has been picked through by singers looking for covers. “Angel of Montgomery” has gotten the widest treatment – from everyone from Bonnie Raitt to the Dixie Chicks. But his weathered voice gave the best weight to the protagonist lonely housewife hearing flies buzz in her empty kitchen.
When it opened two years ago, the block the school sits on was named Steve Goodman Way, in honor of Prine’s late song-writing friend and sometime collaborator. Flanked by a guitarist and bassist, Prine honored Goodman, dedicating “Souvenirs” to him and playing Goodman’s song “My Old Man” to his mother and brother, who were in the audience Friday.
Later on, he brought up songwriter Iris DeMent to sing duets that can be found on his new album, “In Spite of Ourselves” (Oh Boy). DeMent has a voice that doesn’t need amplification. Her twangy siren shoots high and hits big.
Combined with Prine’s rustic drawl, they made the perfect mismatched couple not found in many country songs today.
But like Old Town, which is now suburbanized with town homes and Starbucks, the Chicago Prine sings of sounds familiar but not quite.
His songs mention trips to Indiana beaches, grilling sausages and suffering in a Great Lake wind. But like Prine’s unsophisticated, affable self, they felt more like a time we wish we had back, but don’t.
“God, I miss Chicago,” he let slip after singing a line that mentioned, what else, but Italian beef. There’s nothing like someone who’s been gone a long time returning to tell us what life’s all about.