At 70, John Prine looks more like the courtly grandfather he’s celebrated in song than the “new Dylan” he was touted to be in the ’70s. A roly-poly gent these days, with a shock of salt-and-pepper hair and a jawline that had to be reconstructed after cancer surgery in 2013, Prine took the stage at NJPAC in Newark on Saturday night with his crackerjack band and regaled the crowd for 100 minutes with his garrulous mix of homespun wisdom, keen human insight and folksy humor.
Over a 45-year career and 16 studio albums, Prine has established himself as an American icon, a singing Mark Twain who has won the respect of fellow songwriters and a devoted cult of fans without ever approaching commercial success. Part of that was just the luck of the draw; early on, Prine’s songs were covered by the likes of Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Carly Simon and his good friend Steve Goodman without ever yielding a bona fide hit. But Prine also has a penchant for favoring his best songs over the ones he should be trying to sell. At NJPAC, he completely ignored his latest album, a collection of covers sung as duets called For Better or Worse, but performed nine tracks from his 1972 eponymous debut.
Dressed in matching black suits, on a plain stage with no props save a table for towels and guitar picks, Prine and his four-piece band played to a mesmerized sold-out room with evident good humor and enthusiasm. Prine beat cancer for the second time just last year, so as he told the crowd, he was happy to be in Newark, but happier still to just be anywhere. And that jaunty spirit proved infectious, even on the singer’s darkest numbers.
While making sure to include audience favorites like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Illegal Smile” (which turned into a singalong) and “Paradise,” Prine also treated his audience to some deep album cuts. He opened with “Long Monday” from 2005’s Fair & Square and included “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” from 1985’s overlooked German Afternoons, “Unwed Fathers” from 1984’s Aimless Love, and seemed to be speaking directly to his appreciative audience with 1991’s “All the Best” (singing “I guess I wish you all the best”).
Prine often introduced his songs with funny stories; he regaled the crowd with how he’d been “hoodwinked” into performing his first album from start to finish in his adopted hometown of Nashville. “That felt kind of odd, I’d never done that before,” Prine said, “but we found a couple of good songs on there that we’d forgotten about,” and that led to powerful renditions of the rarely heard “Quiet Man” and “Six O’Clock News.”
Prine also noted that the cover of that album — featuring the singer sitting on a bale of hay — was the first time he’d ever seen a bale of hay. “That was some photographer’s idea,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”
For his one political song — the anti-Vietnam War anthem “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” — Prine joked that they’d dug the tune out of mothballs because of the election last year. “But with the way things are going,” he added, “looks like we’ll be getting a lot of use out of it.”
Prine’s band featured longtime collaborator Jason Wilber on guitar and vocals, Pat McLaughlin on mandolin and guitar and Dave Jacques on acoustic and electric bass. Wilber, who recently released his own debut album, has been with Prine for 20 years, but looked no older than 25. (Prine joked that Wilber just stands in the back and never ages.) Kenneth Blevins on drums completed the combo, which added melodic solos and sonorous bottom to Prine’s strummed chords. Jacques’ bass solo on “Hello in There” proved especially moving.
At the end of the set, Prine brought out Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, who had opened the night, for “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from Prine’s first album of duets. The singer then played two of his most somber compositions, “Unwed Fathers” and the Vietnam-era “Sam Stone,” by himself, and finished up with the band, Campbell and Williams on “Lake Marie” (one of Prine’s most evocative story songs) and the coal mining saga, “Paradise.”
Campbell and Williams have spent many years as backup players with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Judy Collins and, for the last part of his career, Levon Helm. They recently released their debut album together, featuring a mix of Campbell’s original compositions and covers.
With elements of country, bluegrass and gospel, their opening set showcased Campbell’s deft fingerpicking guitar leads and William’s downhome country vocals.