The Dance of John Prine, Auckland, February 27

Review by Simon, photographs by Megan Moss

John Prine Live in Auckland_Photo Megan Moss

Towards the end of last night’s John Prine show at the Bruce Mason Theatre, Prine removed his acoustic guitar, lay it on the floor, and danced around it. He shimmied and swayed, his moves bringing to mind an indigenous American dance. The band played on, their faces beaming. And if John Prine had looked out at the audience just then, he’d surely have seen a sea of smiling faces in front of him. By that stage he had already won over the audience many times over, but this lovely moment took us somewhere else. Up to that point we’d been captured by the 72 year old’s gravelly but clear voice, his humour, and the storytelling of his songs – about life and love, observed with wonderful detail and observations of his American homeland. And we were captured by his band, who were simply fantastic.

Before we saw his dance though, we’d also had time to absorb the battle he’s had to stay healthy. Cancer had left his head sitting a little lopsided on top of his shoulders, and he moved stiffly and carefully around the stage. Not that his physical condition affected any appreciation of his music. If anything, John Prine’s reflections on mortality and morality were all the more telling and poignant because of his appearance.

But he did move gingerly about, at least until he danced. Then it was different. He didn’t look unsteady at all, but entirely relaxed, as if surfing the rhythm of the music. This was the first time I’d seen him perform, and I don’t know if it’s a regular thing he does. But it was unexpected to me, and it seemed a release, a freeing of inhibition and a channeling of what he was singing about. Yes it did evoke American Indian culture, but it also made me think of a white person’s country hoedown. The characters in his songs mostly inhabit the country not the city, and a yearning for that life and its culture, and its closeness to nature, runs strongly through the music. The dance epitomised all that, and as that dance  literally took him off stage, I wondered what other artist, especially a white artist, would do such a thing? Very few, if any. Many might feel uncomfortable about it, or might worry about giving offence or opening themselves to ridicule. No risk of that here.

The night was mostly about John Prine, but not entirely so. His band were superb: Jason Wilber on lead guitar, Fats Kaplin on violin, mandolin and pedal steel guitar, Dave Jacques on bass and Brian Owenings on drums all slipped into a southern country folk groove with great touch and feel. Twice Prine was joined on stage by opening act Tyler Childers, and at the end his wife Fiona Whelan.

John Prine offers his own insights into life, in song and story, with insight but also self deprecation. He doesn’t come off at all as preachy. This is simply a case of here I am, here’s what I’ve lived, here are my stories. Much of the show is devoted to his new album, The Tree of Forgiveness. Summer’s End, Boundless Night, Caravan of Fools, Egg & Daughter Nite Lincoln Nebraska 1967, and When I Get to Heaven were some of the standouts. His lyrics are funny but cutting and honest. There are too many to choose from, but here’s a sample from Boundless Love:

I woke up this morning to a garbage truck
Looks like this ol’ horseshoe’s done run out of luck
If I came home, would you let me in?
Fry me some pork chops and forgive my sin?

If you’ve ever had an appreciation of folk music, this was a concert for you. Two hours flew by. I’d have liked more.

Photos by Megan Moss

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