On April 13, 2018, exactly one year before his emotionally rich and rollicking performance Saturday at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, John Prine released The Tree of Forgiveness, his most acclaimed and successful album in several years.
“Today is its birthday, one year ago tonight,” said Prine to the sold-out crowd at the majestically restored venue. The album’s arrival last spring marked Prine’s first set of new songs in some 13 years, and the disc debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. The Tree of Forgiveness also signaled Prine’s confident return after surgery for lung cancer in 2013, following his recovery from neck cancer 15 years earlier.
Prine, 72, was named artist of the year at the Americana Music Awards in September. He was honored in an all-star tribute concert on the eve of this year’s Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, and he will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York on June 13. After touring throughout 2018, he spent this March performing in Australia. The Brooklyn booking was his second stateside stop on a world tour that currently runs through December.
The career-spanning Kings Theater show affirmed that John Prine is nothing less than an American treasure.
As his opening act Saturday, Prine introduced his fans to indie/folk singer Courtney Marie Andrews. Her crystalline soprano soared in the theater, bringing to mind a young Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris, but her lyrical voice is distinctly her own, in songs like “Rough Around the Edges” from her 2018 album May Your Kindness Remain. She is a stunning talent on the rise.
Prine opened Saturday’s show, as he has most recent live dates, with “Picture Show,” his tribute to James Dean. But as he sang about “a young man from a small town, with a very big imagination,” it also seemed an autobiographical declaration from this singer born in Maywood, Ill. (population 24,000-plus).
“Six O’Clock News,” which followed, went all the way back to Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut album. It displayed Prine’s gift for imagery — “`God bless this kitchen’ said the knick-knack shelf” — empathy and pathos: “The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o’clock news/ His brains were on the sidewalk and blood was on his shoes.”
The years have only sharpened Prine’s empathy — and often his anger. The phrase “caravan” has taken on a different meaning,in news stories about Central American refugees, since Prine wrote the “Caravan of Fools” for The Tree of Forgiveness. So as he introduced the number, he explained: “This song is not about those migrant refugees trying to get into our beautiful country. This song is about that asshole in the White House.”
Energetically playing an acoustic guitar, Prine was accompanied by his four-piece touring band, who offered textured country-rock arrangements throughout the show: Jason Wilber on electric guitar and harmonica, Kenneth Blevins on drums, Dave Jacques on electric bass and acoustic stand-up bass and Fats Kaplan on pedal steel, fiddle and mandolin.
Jacques’ stand-up bass brought a somber beauty to “Hello in There,” undeniably one of Prine’s greatest songs. No other songwriter has ever conveyed the loneliness of old age with such simplicity and, once more, empathy. The ovation from Prine’s older fans Saturday night just might have reflected an awareness of how much closer they are to the song’s characters than when they first heard “Hello in There” decades ago.
On The Tree of Forgiveness, with co-writer Pat McLaughlin, Prine has composed another classic of concern with “Summer’s End.” His live performance of the song was understated yet heartbreaking. “Summer’s end came faster than we wanted,” he sang. “Come on home/ Come on home/ You don’t have to be alone.” In a statement accompanying the release of the song’s video last September, Prine wrote: “The opioid crisis is tearing American families apart.” The video was dedicated to Prine’s close friend Max Barry, the son of former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, who died in July 2017 from abuse of drugs including opioids.
Prine’s band turned “I Have Met My Love Today” into a rave up. Courtney Marie Andrews came back out to duet with him on another early gem, “Angel From Montgomery.” (A fan was overheard proudly saying, “I’m from L.A. — Lower Alabama). Prine took a solo turn on his acoustic guitar for the wackily inventive “Jesus the Missing Years,” as well as “Sam Stone,” his lament for an addicted Vietnam War veteran who returned home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.”
Rejoined by his band, Prine brought his show to a sonic peak with the upbeat, rambling “Lake Marie.” (“The dogs were barking/ The cars were parking/ The loan sharks were sharking/ The narcs were narcing”). It is as catchy a tune as anyone’s ever written about a double murder in the suburbs of Chicago. Prine belied his 72 years as he pulled his guitar over his head, laid it down and danced about the stage, twirling his guitar cord.
“When I Get to Heaven” was the first of two encores during which Prine, a man who has confronted his mortality more than once, spoke of his plans to meet God and “thank him for more blessings than one man can stand/ Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band/ Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?”
“Paradise” closed the show, Prine’s joyous environmental dig at the Peabody coal company, for strip mining Muhlenberg County, Ky., “where my parents were born.” Along with Andrews and the band members, Prine was joined onstage by four relatives for the rousing finale. “I’ve got a whole lot of family here,” he explained, “and people who love me” — including Saturday night’s packed house at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre.