John Prine in Vicar Street, Dublin, on 28th August 2015

We are lucky in Ireland that John Prine has an Irish wife.  Apparently he takes a long holiday here most summers, and some of these years (not every year) he slots in a mini Irish tour.  This time he played two intimate shows, one in Ennis, and the Vicar Street show which GoldenPlec is reviewing here.  GoldenPlec also reported last week on a special performance which John played last week at the US embassy, and which was recorded by RTE radio.

So, to Vicar Street, and a rapturous welcome for this most likeable of singer-songwriters.  It is unlikely there are many artists who inspire such a level of affection in their audience, in John’s case probably due to a combination of his humour, very pleasant stage presence and the wry nature of his songs.

And its not just his stage patter which is funny – the songs amuse too, and tonight we get several of his funniest, including the hilarious agony-aunt-letter parody, Dear Abbey, played as a request.  He also plays the witty Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You In To Heaven Any More which he says gets topical every time there is an election coming up.

The setlist is quite different from previous visits to Ireland, which is a joy as this man has now got a comprehensive back catalogue spread over 16 albums since 1971. He plays two songs  from his most recent album ‘Fair & Square’, the topical Taking a Walk and a beautiful rendition of Long Monday, with John giving both songs really top-notch vocal renditions.

As well as funny songs, new songs and up-tempo catchy country songs, John has also written some of the deepest and most affecting slower songs in his genre, songs that stand the test of time and which can still bring a tear to the eye here in Dublin in 2015. Sam Stone is one obvious example, as is Hello In There, with John introducing this rumination on old-age by telling us a nice story about his own grandparents. He also refers to his grandparents prior to playing Grandpa was a Carpenter. He wrote these songs about old people when he was a young man, and it is more than a little poignant to see John singing them now.

Prine battled throat cancer in recent years, and it is well known that he and the band had to subsequently re-arrange many of his songs in order for him to sing in a more comfortable lower octave.  But, if anything, his voice has actually improved.  It was never a beautiful instrument in a technical sense, but is one of the most expressive voices you will hear in country or singer-songwriter music to this day.

The band are also in fine form.  Usually in Europe we get his excellent guitar player Jason Wilbur (who plays very tasteful country electric guitar) and the dependable Dave Jacques on bass.  But this time we also get his frequent collaborator Pat McLaughlin, who provides energetic mandolin and some nice backing vocals.  Nobody gets in each others way, everything is in its right place, and you can tell everybody is having as good a time on stage as we are in the audience.  We also get a three-song solo set and a three-song set with just Philip Donnelly (the support act) backing John on second acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies.

But the show’s highlight, as usual, is the closing song, the ever-epic Lake Marie, which brings us to our feet with its strange mix of hard-to-fathom lyrics (which are like a weird American mixture of Stephen King and Raymond Carver) and anthem-like melody and chorus.  Bob Dylan once said it could be the best song ever written.  He could be right.

The encores also satisfy, with the full ensemble on stage, including two of John’s sons, sending us home after a two and a quarter hour show with Paradise, a song from 44 years ago, but which sounds like it could be straight out of 1930s Appalachia.  It’s a bit like the man himself, and a bit like tonight’s show – timeless and supremely enjoyable.