John Prine Wednesday, March 20, Masonic Temple
Let’s hoist one to the idea of hanging in there.
This is the story of John Prine, who years ago left the major-label world and rode it out with his own, independent releases until finally they began producing rich fruit.
His two most recent records - “The Missing Years” and “Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings” - are the best one-two punch of his career, and he drew heavily on both Wednesday night. Happily, the new material is just as good as his older, better-known work, which also was well-represented Wednesday.
Prine has never seemed happier, or more confident, onstage than at the Masonic Temple. In the past, he has struggled with his performing identity - sometimes a rocker, sometimes a folkie - but his new Lost Dogs band ties all the loose ends together.
Mandolin and accordion lent a rootsy resonance to such songs as “Fishin’ and Whistlin’,” while “Lucky Larue” and “Quit Hollerin’ At Me” got a cool Memphis soul groove.
Sometimes, Prine’s band brings to mind such other heartland rockers as the Band and John Mellencamp. Other times, it feels loose and limber as Dylan’s road band.
At the end of an extended solo acoustic set - it included a marvelous, introspective “Chain of Sorrow,” “Dear Abbey,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and “Big Old Goofy World” - Prine was joined by bandmates on horns and mandolin for a version of “Sam Stone” that evoked rural bandstands and World War I, not Vietnam.
Organ and guitars joined up to create a moody “Quit Hollerin’ At Me,” and the new “Lake Marie” has become an extended, rocking set-piece highlighted by slide guitar and a rambunctious twin lead-guitar section.
Wednesday, Prine followed it with a quiet “Hello In There,” its brilliant evocation of aging staged with string bass, accordion and gently weeping guitar.
Prine has a marvelous mind. His songs are rich with images and beautifully crafted lyrics. Non sequiturs snuggle up to insights of real substance.
At a casual listen, some songs may appear as humorous trifles, but a deeper listening reveals that Prine has located an image - no matter how unlikely - that drills home his sentiment.
“Quit Hollerin’ At Me” may seem like a song about TV commercials and angry spouses the neighbors “already think my name is ‘Where the hell you been?”’ - but it’s really about inner demons: “Cause there ain’t no voice that’s louder than the one inside my brain.”
Heather Eatman, a young singer/songwriter signed to Prine’s Oh Boy Records, opened with an impressive set of edgy folk songs mostly dealing with ragged heroines living on the margins. She won over the crowd with her witty songwriting and engaging personality.