Jukebox: Cancer added new element to way Prine delivered songs

Singer-songwriter John Prine returns to the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Sunday for a sold-out sh
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In this weekend of troubadours, John Prine probably has the most rumbling voice and the darkest and deepest songs.

First the voice: Even before Prine became the most celebrated cancer survivor in the music business this side of Levon Helm, he had scorched it to a dry husk with decades of smoking.

Onstage once at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, where he returns on Sunday for a sold-out show, Prine confessed: “I’m just dying for a cigarette.” This almost literally came true, but he beat cancer of his throat and neck and came back, scarred but not scared.

When he returned to the studio and the stage, he found his voice was lower, forcing him to rearrange his songs, learn to sing them differently and refresh one of the most distinguished catalogs among contemporary songwriters in the process. He launched his comeback quietly, but soon fans and critics alike were marveling at how Prine had discovered new truths in his tunes and sing them with greater conviction than ever.

The songs, infused with what music critic Robert Christgau calls “kind, comic, unassumingly surreal humanism,” have built his career almost in spite of his rough-hewn voice. His songwriting went on hiatus about the time cancer sidelined his voice in 1998. But his “Fair & Square” album introduced a batch of new tunes last year, while “Standard Songs for Average People” with bluegrass deity Mac Wiseman this year collects some well-loved standards.

Prine started writing songs while young but stepped up the pace in 1970 when he complained about the quality of performers at a Chicago open mike, was challenged to go up onstage himself, got hired for a three-nights-a-week gig as a result and realized he needed more.

Then working as a letter carrier, he would take refuge from Windy City weather by unlocking and backing into mail-drop boxes to sit inside and write songs. Quitting the Postal Service, he made his living delivering musical letters from the stage.

“I’d sing three nights a week and sleep all week,” he has said of those days. “To me, that was the perfect job.”

That perfect job became an exceptional career when pal Steve Goodman flew Prine to New York, where Prine guested at The Bitter End with Kris Kristofferson and signed his first record contract the next day. “I hadn’t been in New York 24 hours.” Soon he was in Memphis, amazed at recording his first album with Elvis’ band.

Prine has led bands of various sizes in area shows, from a full-on and pretty loud rock band at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall to a cozy trio at the Palace a few years later. On Sunday, he sings with guitarist Jason Wilber, who also opens the 7:30 p.m. show.

Guy Davis has also sold out this weekend — his show tonight at 440 Upstairs (440 State St., Schenectady) in an Eighth Step at Proctors presentation. There’s good reason: The skilled singer and guitarist combines a folklorist’s encyclopedic knowledge of the blues with an actor’s intensity and flair.

He has released 12 albums and compiled about as many acting credits in films and plays. His 2006 “Skunkmello” album earned a five star review in the jazz journal “Downbeat.”

Plenty of honors

Tracy Grammer, who sings on Saturday at Caffe Lena (47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs), has also won her share of awards and honors. Her “Flowers of Avalon” album was the most-played album on folk radio in 2005 and popped up on many best-of lists at the end of that year. “Flowers” was her first solo release after singing and songwriting partner Dave Carter died of a heart attack on tour at 49.

Grammer has continued to record Carter’s songs, releasing “Seven Is the Number” recently, an album she began with Carter and finished after his death.

Stacy Grammer sings on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Caffe Lena with multi-instrumentalist Jim Henry. Admission is $18, $15 for Caffe members. Phone 583-0022 or visit www.caffelena.com.

Electric City Rock Fest

On Saturday, the second annual Midwinter Music Festival kicks off at Schenectady County Community College with the seven-band Electric City Rock Fest.

The performers are Hyngd, the Erotics, 8 X 9, Stuck on Stupid, Electric Lipstick, Blackcat Elliot and Acoustic Trauma. Show time is noon, and the show runs to 10 p.m. with intermission from 4 to 6 p.m. for dinner.

Concert tickets bring discounts in downtown restaurants and cafes.

Tickets are $8 in advance, online at www.noteworthykidz.org, where ticket outlets are listed, or at the door for $10.

Proceeds from all three Midwinter Music Festival events — the Electric City Rock Fest on Saturday, the Country and Bluegrass Showcase on Jan. 12 and the Blues and Bluegrass Blast on Jan. 19 — will benefit Noteworthy Kidz, a program of the Northeast Country Music Association, and be used to supplement music education programs in the Schenectady area.

Categories: Life and Arts

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