I’ll admit that I walked into John Prine’s concert at the Virginia Theatre on Friday, April 13, expecting to be surrounded by aging professorial types. So, it came as a bit of a shock when, as I sat down in the balcony, I overheard a woman in the row behind me sharing a recollection of attending a U2 concert where “I took off my g-string and threw it onto the stage; it hit Bono’s foot!” followed by a chorus of nicotine-stained laughs. Generalizing from the 20 or so people in my immediate vicinity, Prine’s typical fan is 60ish, working-class, owns a Harley-Davidson, and knows every damn word to every damn song Prine ever wrote.
I asked the folks seated near me where they were from, and the answers ranged from Pontiac, to Perrysville, Indiana, to Effingham. There was a tweedy element, as well, but the crowd was about as sociologically diverse as a room full of white people who paid $50 apiece can be, if that makes any sense at all. Prine hasn’t priced out his die-hard fans, which made the concert a more lively experience than anticipated.
Prine himself did a valiant job of pleasing those assembled, belting out a sizable chunk of his back catalog, opening with “Spanish Pipedream” and closing out the encore more than 90 minutes later with “Paradise.” His interactions with the crowd were brief, but humorous, such as the when he opened “Sam Stone” with the aside, “I wrote this song when I was on my mail route.”
His struggles with neck cancer a decade ago have taken a toll on Prine’s voice (it was pretty strained throughout), but he can still command a room. Describing the crowd as “admiring” is probably an understatement; the lyrics to pretty much every song would have been clearly understood even if Prine’s microphone had been off.
Prine played acoustic guitar, and he was joined onstage by an electric guitarist and a bassist, and the three of them were clad in sharp suits. (I apologize for the lack of photos accompanying this review, but Prine requested that no photos be taken, and SP wasn’t granted a photo pass as a result.) His lead guitarist, Jason Wilber, was smooth and nimble, carrying the melody and nailing imaginative solo runs. I was surprised by Prine’s small stature; when opening act Eric Brace and Peter Cooper (no giants, I don’t believe) stepped on stage to join Prine for the encore, they were both a full head taller than him.
At one point late in the evening, Prine took a moment to acknowledge Roger Ebert’s Sun-Times review of Prine’s live show in 1970, the first media coverage Prine received. Noting that Ebert’s film festival will take place in the Virginia next week, Prine said, “Tell him ‘hi’ for me, and thanks.”
On balance, it was a warm-hearted evening, where the man onstage basked in the hard-won affection of the crowd, and he rewarded them with a poignant overview of his body of work. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night.