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Pop Music Review

Prine's Invigorating Return a Joyful Treat for His Fans

May 06, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

John Prine concerts over the years have been rituals of renewal--as invigorating and reassuring as the crack of the bat during spring training or the graceful fall of autumn leaves.

So it was jarring three years ago to learn that Prine had cancer of the neck. Even when he emerged from treatment cancer-free in 1998 and recorded "In Spite of Ourselves," an album of duets with some of his favorite female country singers, one wondered whether he would have the strength to tour again.

But the 53-year-old performer, whose folk-based style incorporates elements of country and rock, was back in the spotlight Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall, and you can imagine the warmth of the response when he stepped to the microphone to begin his generous, two-hour set.

Prine responded with a moving performance that underscored his position as a songwriter's songwriter.

One sign of his originality and influence is that his name has become a reference point for describing quality work. Just as certain songs can be said to have a Dylan-esque craft or Joni Mitchell-like level of confession, it is possible to speak of a song's Prine esque characteristics.

Prine's strength is his ability to capture life's quiet, often overlooked moments by weaving familiar images and phrases into tapestries that carry a timeless, everyman sensibility.

Though Prine wrote songs rich with the sharpness and occasional wit of classic New Yorker short stories in the '80s and '90s, he chose Thursday to focus chiefly on his '70s material, including eight of the 13 songs from his 1971 debut album.

There was a tune or two that seemed dated (the Vietnam protest in "The Great Compromise") and one whose humor has worn mighty thin ("Dear Abby"). For the most part, however, Prine's material has held up spectacularly well--largely because he wrote from an unusually mature viewpoint.

It's remarkable that in his 20s he could write about the loneliness of old age ("Hello in There") and the erosion of passion ("Angel From Montgomery") with such insight.

Thursday's highlight was the back-to-back renditions of two of his most evocative love songs--"Souvenirs," full of wistful heartache, and "Far From Me," with its bitter undercurrents. The latter is a chilling tale of the helplessness of watching a relationship suddenly turn wrong.

*

Prine and his versatile, extremely tasteful three-piece band were joined by singer-songwriter Iris DeMent on a few numbers from "In Spite of Ourselves," including three songs that she performed with Prine on the album.

DeMent, who opened the concert with a 50-minute set of her own material, sings in a high-pitched, rural country style that makes much of her music seem as if it came off a Smithsonian collection of '30s recordings.

But the best of her tunes--including "Our Town" and "Mama's Opry"--speak about longing and desire with a detail and character that deserve to be called Prineesque.

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