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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Shepherds Bush Empire, October 31st 2005
John Prine
The last thing I want to do is cause offence, or be thought to be disrespectful. But you know, it has to be said, and it can’t be gainsaid, John Prine has just got the haircut from hell. And it’s not a new thing – take a look at the tonsorial confections that adorn most of his album covers, from the eponymous John Prine of 1971, to the just released Fair and Square, and you’ll see what I mean. And just watch out for 1978’s Bruised Orange, which apart from featuring two of tonight’s classic Prine numbers, ‘Fish and Whistle, and ‘That’s the way the world goes round’, shows a Prinesque rug that would frighten the pets far more than a whole night’s worth of Guy Fawke’s fireworks. And the children naive creatures that they are blessedly are, obviously thought it was a seasonal thing. “Is it the Bad Halloween Man Mommy?” asked a little girl (eyes covered by her mother’s trembling hands) who sat close by us in the Bush’s exclusive upper-deck Executive Class 5/9s, “Tell me Daddy’s hair will never look like that”.
Well who cares? There’s a Shepherd’s Bush Empire full of Moms and Dads, kids, suited after-office workers, old men with their sandwiches, new-age punks, west London media types, and me and The Photographer, who’ll tell you that this is a man who can in all probability walk on water, and as such the presence of the sad remains of a seventies mullet is nothing. This is John Prine back with his first album of new songs for nine years, a period during which he’s survived major surgery for cancer, and the subsequent chemotherapy (“the doctor said, ‘John, we’re worried about damaging your throat’, I said, ‘Doc, have you ever heard me sing?’”) which saw his voice drop several points on the scale. John Prine
He’s just won some big shot Nashville award for Musician of the Year, and Fair and Square may well have Grammy written all over it. And haircut notwithstanding, he’s just such a nice bloke. He smiles, grins with pleasure at his own lyrics, seems genuinely overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception, and just seems to be having a wonderful time. And he’s got a cough almost as bad as mine and spends much of the night swigging back Benylin from the bottle as if it was Jack Daniels. Even the little girl gently removes her mother’s protective hands from her eyes and gawps with undisguised admiration and affection.
John Prine has that sort of effect on you. His clever little songs sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it – wit, melancholy, wry observation, regret, stoicism, anger, guilt, all played out in little domestic vignettes of American life.
John Prine Of course he’s no friend of the powerful. He came to fame partly through the songs he wrote that were inspired by Vietnam – ‘Sam Stone’, ‘Your flag decal’; well, what goes around comes around, and thirty or more years on (“I got this song out of the attic for George Bush and his friends, I hope they all go to jail”) they’re no less relevant than they were then. If anything even more poignant.
And reinforced by ‘Some humans ain’t human’ from the new disc. Which features a lot during the evening, so we get ‘Crazy as a loon’, ‘Long Monday’, ‘Taking a walk’ ‘Bear Creek’ and ‘She is my everything’ (“This is a song about my wife. It’s a nice song. It’s good to have a nice song about your wife, ‘Cos you can just go ‘round the house humming it when things ain’t too good”). All sung as well as can be expected from a man on a Benylin binge, with support vocals from Mindy Smith (she was dressed for Halloween too) and backed by his superb band of several years: David Jacques on string and electric bass, and the outstanding Jason Wilber on mandolin, lead and slide guitar.
And of course the new material was spiced up with the best of Prine’s back catalogue, not easy to choose from such a vast collection of impressive work. But we got ‘Souvenirs’, ‘Fish and Whistle’, the gorgeous yet resentful ‘Angel from Montgomery’, ‘Dear Abbey’, ‘Donald and Lydia’, ‘Sam Stone, ‘Ain’t hurting nobody’, ‘Hello in there’. ‘Lake Marie’, and to finish ‘Paradise’. It’s remarkable that any writer can have such a strong body of work to call from, and to be frank even more of a surprise that after a considerable gap he can come back with vibrant new material that equals the old. John Prine
But then I suppose, as his haircut signals, Prine is no ordinary person. Like some other artistes we’ve reviewed on Whiskyfun he gets the ‘national treasure’ treatment from the juvenile critics who don’t quite get it. But for once they’re almost right – but please don’t put John in a Museum, put his haircuts there instead, and charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em. - Nick morgan (concert photos by Kate)

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