When word came through last November of a visit to these shores by country legend John Prine, there was no question that Vicar Street wouldn’t be filled to capacity on the night, and sure enough an extra date was necessary. Prine, joined by Jason Wilber and Dave Jacques on guitar and bass respectively, kicked things off in Derry before hitting the capital for an all-encompassing run-through of his recording career. It’s an all-seated house, standing room only at the back of the balcony, and there’s a hum of expectation as Goldenplec joins the Sunday evening crowd.
Philip Donnelly is just finishing off his set as we enter, doling out a cover of Proud Mary to a buzzing venue. Donnelly has toured and recorded with anyone who’s anyone in terms of country music; Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clarke, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Nanci Griffith, Emmylou Harris, and not least Prine himself…the guy has been around. Judging by Donnelly’s smile and the crowd’s reaction as he rounds things off, it has been a successful set, and thankfully it’s not the last we’ll see of him tonight.
Prine and his fellow musicians begin by bringing us right back to the beginning, opening with Spanish Pipedream from Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut. All he has to do to elicit spontaneous applause this early in the night is saunter in front of the monitors, closing the gap between performer and punter. From the moment the delicate picked intro of Humidity Built The Snowman begins, a hush descends that remains unbroken for its duration, as Wilber and Jacques hang back and the rich texture of Prine’s voice comes to the fore.
Things get livelier with Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore, and Prine makes the most of the song’s pauses, hesitating just the right amount for the greatest comedy effect. As he often does during the set, Prine eschews the spotlight during Wilber’s guitar solo, one that leads to a burst of applause from the crowd. “Taught him everything he knows” the singer deadpans. Wilber’s contributions are both sympathetic and restrained, whether it’s the refined swell of harmonica on Six O’Clock News or one of the many, fine lead guitar embellishments he provides throughout. Similarly, Jacques anchors everything from his side of the stage, switching from electric to double bass over the set.
“I love this one!” a female voice shouts as Storm Windows begins, again with Prine relinquishing the spotlight to a fantastic, understated solo from Wilber. “Thank God for Benylin” he jokes at one point, in reference to the bottle he swigs from periodically, and if his voice is giving him trouble there’s no evidence of such tonight. The crowd is in full voice, joining in for the chorus of Fish & Whistle. Glory Of True Love has “the dubious honour of being the fastest thing we play” we’re told, “…it’s all downhill after here.”
A voice shouts “Say a few words!” before Angel From Montgomery; “I’ve never been at a loss for words. What’s the subject?” Jacques and Wilber depart, leaving Prine to go it alone for the mid-section of the gig. The crowd claps gently during Long Monday, and add a murmur of vocals to an inclusive Dear Abby, becoming increasingly audible as the song goes on. Illegal Smile heralds another mass singalong as the venue is lit up and the crowd claim the final chorus for themselves, after which we’re told “I wrote that song when I still had a mind to lose.”
Jacques returns in darkness to add a bass drone to Sam Stone, and then all three are back in with a vengeance for a forceful Bear Creek Blues. Saddle In The Rain benefits from its darkened, slowed down re-imagining from ‘Common Sense’ before the true highlight of the night comes with Lake Marie. Quietly epic, the song takes on its own magical trajectory, particularly during the guitar solo. If there’s any downside it’s just the knowledge that something this good can only be the finale, and a standing ovation is duly given.
Prine re-introduces Donnelly for the encore and both men share centre stage for Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness, Donnelly taking the Nanci Griffith role as well as providing some fine guitar. Donnelly again excels on Paradise, the appreciative crowd making their presence felt one last time as the band’s four way harmonies fill the room. And then, too soon, that was it; a stellar gig, a stellar cast, and a warm back-and-forth between spectator and stage for this peerless songwriter.