Tyler Childers was a tad controversial last year in Nashville when he accepted the American Music Association Award for Emerging Artist of the Year. The Kentucky native dressed a little like Colonel Sanders with fried chicken stains on his jacket, queried the meaning and purpose of “Americana”, stating simply that he plays "country". I personally felt that he was a little captured by his own rhetoric in a recent interview where he had stated: “if it sounds like country, feels like country, tastes like country… then all it is, is country” or words to that effect.
But it was a tidier and cleaner cut Tyler Childers who opened for John Prine last night. He sat alone with just an acoustic guitar and ran through a ten song set that included a number of tracks from his latest album Purgatory, such as Honky Tonk Flame, Lady May, Whitehouse Road ( but didn’t include the title track, or Feathered Indians which featured most on Spotify), along with some earlier songs such as Nose On The Grindstone, Snipe Hunt and Rock Salt And Nails.
The Kiwi audience was untainted by any hint of past controversy and was instead enthralled by the gritty, whisky-laced twang of a true Appalachian native who grew up in Paintsville Kentucky in the shadow of coal (not far in fact from John Prine’s Muhlenberg county, where Paradise lay). And, if you can get through the accent, Childers too had been listening and noticing how John Prine performs because he entertained the audience similarly with his own tales of Sears Roebuck as a delivery driver and getting stuck in Chicago by missing a street number by 4,000 or so.
Tyler Childers sings of human experience which belies his young age of twenty-seven and does so with a lyrical talent that echoes the sometimes obscure nature of Dylan as opposed to the elegant simplicity of Prine. But with lots of substance (and substances) in the form of whisky and dirt.
Jed Hilly, the present Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, defines 'Americana' as any music in which you can taste the dirt. So by that definition, Tyler Childers plays Americana. But, leaving the semantics aside, Tyler Childers is an impressive young man with acres of talent, which was eminently displayed last night at the Bruce Mason. A perfect intro to the great John Prine.
Follow this young man. He’s taking off! Come back now Tyler y’hear?, And bring your band!!!
Before the start of John Prine's set, let's quickly fast-forward a bit to the end.
“I’ve waited forty-five years for this, and it was worth the wait,” said an emotional Keith after the show. Keith is a school mate of mine whom I still see once a year, and he was referring, a tad erroneously, back to 1972 or 3, when John Prine’s first album in 1971, came to our attention as students at the Otago University.
John Prine, the new Bob Dylan, was the catch cry, or just an ordinary looking young man sitting on a bale of straw. Back then, you could take it either way. But, sixteen or so studio albums, some compilations and live recordings later, John Prine emerged, not entirely unscathed, as the godfather of Americana, the uncrowned king of Nashville, the purveyor of life’s little quirks, the man who says so much in so few words. As Bob Dylan himself once gushed: "Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism”. Or in other words, John Prine writes and sings about life, full stop.
It had also been a forty-five-year wait for me until I saw John Prine in Nashville in 2016, and then each year since, at the AmericanaFest in the United States. When I saw Prine for the first time, I remember being shocked by his appearance and the sound of his voice. It had gotten a little croaky as a side effect of neck cancer, which affected his tongue and speech and required substantial therapy back in 1998. I remember thinking, how can this guy perform sounding like that? Well, the happy answer is that singing turns out to be the best cure for a croak and very quickly the voice came back... not as smooth and accurate as his early years, but absolutely fine from a singing former postman. So I have become acquainted with John Prine’s performances over the past three years.
But this time, it was different. This time it is here, in Auckland, within the excellent acoustics of the Bruce Mason Centre... our very own John Prine gig and a packed crowd of fans, young and old, including a large smattering of Auckland’s finest musicians, all paying homage to multi-award winning songwriter's songwriter.
Promising a mix of new songs and old, John Prine and his band launched into Picture Show, from 1991’s The Missing Years, one after the other, with a picture of the Forgiveness Tree on the backdrop. Six O’clock News from his debut album followed before Prine first addressed the audience with an explanation of what was to follow... pretty much all of his new album The Tree of Forgiveness ( in fact we get all but one song) and a bunch of older stuff that he was sure the audience wanted to hear. And of course, he was right...
But it wasn't just the songs. Live performances often live or die by the quality of the artist’s interaction with the audience and John Prine is simply the master of empathetic and humorous interchange when his songs were introduced and sometimes explained. From the long story about Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone) ( which incidentally, neglected to explain the meaning of ‘crazy bones’); to the touching references to being a work in progress on the part of his wife Fiona, in Boundless Love, a John Prine audience is typically charmed and delighted by the sheer humility and humanity of the man, and last night in Auckland was no exception.
What about the older songs? Next up came Bruised Orange, the title track from Prine's fifth album in 1978. Spanish Pipedream, Hello In There, Angel From Montgomery (perhaps his greatest song?), Donald And Lydia and Sam Stone from the first album were all interspersed with the latest songs. Grandpa Was A Carpenter from Sweet Revenge was a real surprise (‘chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks’ is one of Prine's more memorable lines) as was Please Don’t Bury Me from the same album, where he was joined by Tyler Childers.
Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody and Lake Marie from 1995’s Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings gave the band a chance to wind up a little, with a funky bass intro to the former and the frenetic lead up reference to ‘Louie Louie’ in the latter song signalling the end of the concert with ’we gotta go now’. John Prine’s band comprised of his long-serving sidemen Dave Jacques on upright bass ( and kazoo) and Jason Wilbur on guitar, who was just a kid when he debuted some twenty-three years ago. On drums was Bryan Owings, on loan from Emmylou’s band (‘thanks, Emmylou’) and on ‘just about everything’ was Fats Kaplin, a celebrated Nashville musician and sideman, who had been on and off with Prine since 2016.
The band, of course, were excellent... and about three quarters through, they withdrew for a solo Prine to perform a number of songs which the setlist described as ‘Dealers Choice’.
First up was Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness from the 1986 album German Afternoons which he did with Jim Rooney as the producer. The album was made in Jim’s studio in Germantown, Nashville, where typically they would cut some music in the morning, and then adjourn to a local bar to drink beer and play pool in the afternoon (as recounted at the 2016 AmericanaFest during Jim Rooney’s book launch). Then Fish And Whistle, (which had earlier been requested by someone in the audience), from Bruised Orange; Please Don’t Bury Me (with Tyler Childers); If You Don’t Want My Love (another request); and Sam Stone ( another candidate for greatest song ever). And No Ordinary Blue got in there somewhere.
Back on came the band to finish Sam Stone off before the finale of God Only Knows and Lake Marie.
During the encore, the audience was rewarded with When I Get To Heaven, the wondrously happy and optimistic requiem which closes the latest album. John Prine seemed very hopeful to prove his old dad wrong when he was told, "Son, when you’re dead, you’re a dead peckerhead." So hopeful that all of a sudden, Prine launched into what might be described as geriatric breakdancing (but probably part of his doctor’s exercise orders after his second bout of cancer in 2103). It was beautiful to watch, and a lot more accomplished, I might venture, compared to Marlon William’s effort at the Villa Maria in Auckland the other weekend!!
The final moment arrived when Tyler Childers and John Prine's wife, Fiona all jointly contributed to Prine's first anthem, Paradise. It was just an amazing celebration of life at Prine's first show of his New Zealand and Australia tour.
We are almost there (Paradise)... it’s a spiritual moment... may it never end...
See John Prine and Tyler Childers during The Tree Of Forgiveness Tour at:
Thursday 28 February
Isaac Theatre Royal | Christchurch, NZ
Ticketek.co.nz | 0800 842 534
Saturday 2 March
TSB Arena | Wellington, NZ
Ticketmaster.co.nz | 0800 111 999
Tuesday 5 March
The Tivoli | Brisbane, QLD
Ticketmaster.com.au | 136 100
Thursday 7 March
Palais Theatre | Melbourne, VIC
Ticketmaster.com.au | 136 100
Saturday 9 March
State Theatre | Sydney, NSW
Ticketmaster.com.au | 136 100