John Prine made his fame writing songs about drug addicted veterans, the devastation of coal mining and Christmas in prison, so it was uplifting when he opened his Symphony Hall performance Saturday night in Duluth with something a little lighter.
Prine kicked things off with four love songs — a couple rollicking and a couple melancholy — all four a direct hit to the heart.
And to show his heart was really into current events, Prine wished Florida and Texas hurricane victims well, saying he was glad to be in the north country. “We’re about as far away from that as we can get,” the Illinois native said.
But it didn’t take Prine, one of the rock music’s longest and strongest social and political critics to get heavy. “This one goes out to our new fuhrer,” Prine said, “Adolph Benito Trumpian.”
“Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” was followed by roars of approval from an audience of the nearly 2,000, most old enough to remember when protests came in the street, not Twitter.
Prine, 70, used his 100-minute performance to show off more than 45 years of writing eloquent, emotional and brutally honest songs that mix country, folk and rock like ore, lime and coal. Earlier this year, he released a songbook, “Beyond Words,” which features lyrics and guitar chords to 60 of his classic songs, photos from his personal collection and in-depth songwriting discussion. The setlist, made up entirely of his own material, served as the world’s best commercial for the book.
Highlights included “Souvenirs,” a song dedicated to recently departed country star Don Williams, a stirring performance of “Angel From Montgomery,” which had the audience singing along with its chorus, and a three-song solo set featuring a birthday song full of laughs, “Sins of Memphisto.”
Dressed in a black suit and topped with a shock of gray hair, Prine, a two-time cancer survivor, walked with a hitch but his voice remained strong, with just a bit of well placed rust. He was backed by a veteran, four-piece band, featuring electric guitar player Jason WIlbur, who roared through a few solos like a lake-bound ore train.
During a blazing version of set closer “Lake Marie,” Prine set down his acoustic guitar and danced off the stage to a standing ovation. He returned quickly to end the show with perhaps his most recognized song, the cut-to-the-bone industrial lament “Paradise.”
Where is paradise, he asks in the fiddle-driven song, laced with mandolin and stand-up bass. “Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away,” is the response.
Multi-instrumentalist and former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell and his wife, Teresa Williams, opened the show with a romping set of acoustic country. Campbell is a smooth guitar picker, and Williams sings as big and strong as Bonnie Raitt, if Raitt had been born in Tennessee. The couple has a new album coming out the St. Paul-based Red House label.