John Prine/Pieta Brown; September 23, 2010; DECC (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center)
I found myself in Duluth to see a show for the second time this month. This time the sister I had been going to visit on the last trip was meeting us here to see one of her favorite musicians. She’s been a John Prine fan for as long as I can remember, but I found him through a very backward route. I was listening to A3’s Exile on Coldharbour Lane for the first time at a friend’s house. I hadn’t heard of them before but I was already intrigued by the bass heavy “country acid gospel house music” (as they like to call it) when a strangely familiar track came on. “This is a Nanci Griffith song,” I claimed, not realizing that many of the tracks on her Other Voices Other Rooms are covers. I looked at the case, “Prine, huh. I think my sister likes him.” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” quickly became my favorite track on Coldharbour, and when I was lucky enough to see A3 opening for Chumbawumba several months later I was the only one who raised their hand in response to the inquiry “Does anyone out there listen to John Prine?” “Uh… one, OK.”
I should mention that the lucky part was seeing them, not the Chumbawumba part where I happily gave up my front row spot to screaming fourteen year olds and their parents. I half expected it come full circle tonight, but Prine didn’t ask if anyone out there listened to A3 before he played my favorite song. I’ve seen Prine a handful of times before, but this was the first time I’d heard him do this song. “OK, we can go,” I announced after it was through. Even though we were only three songs into the set, I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than that. It was a great show, but two hours later that was still the high point. The low point was easily the crowd who was unacceptably vocal for the stateliness and size of the venue. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t been yelling such stupid things. “I love you John!” was a frequent cry. Well, of course you do, you paid $65 or more to see him play. The fact that most of these outbursts came during quiet moments of songs made it even more annoying. Behind us in the balcony a voice yelled out “Dear Abby” at every opportunity. Since he’s played it every time I’ve seen him, it was like yelling “Freebird” at a Skynryd concert.
Prine was patient with all these outbursts, responding to some, other times just smiling, as he worked his way through a greatest hits type set beginning with “Sam Stone” a tragic tale of a veteran who returned home from Vietnam with a drug addiction. Many of Prine’s songs feature such vivid characters, the kind that you feel like you know, for better or worse, by the end of the song. The spoken sung “Lake Marie” is one of the exceptions; it combines a history lesson of sorts with the narrator’s thoughts on what looks to be the end of his relationship.
At the end of the set he introduced the band one more time, Jason Wilbur on guitar, Dave Jacques on upright and electric bass, “and I’m tired of playing.” He couldn’t have been too serious since he returned only a few minutes later for a stellar encore that featured opener Pieta Brown accompanied by Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown’s sideman and producer. “I’ve only written one duet in my life, and Pieta Brown has been gracious enough to come out here and sing it with me,” Prine introduced “In Spite of Ourselves.” It’is one of Prine’s best songs, and it was a delight to hear it live with Pieta taking the other half, singing the part originally done on record by Iris DeMent (who coincidentally is married to Greg Brown) and making it her own. I’ve seen Pieta several times, and Ramsey has always been the silent type, amazing on the guitar but staying clear of a microphone. Tonight however he sang a verse with Prine. I’ve never been much of a fan of Pieta, in fact we had missed half of her set, but her performance in the encore makes me want to give her another chance.