John Prine could have lost his voice to throat cancer five years ago. If that happened, we’d still have his songwriting to look forward to. Fortunately, he’s still performing his 35-plus years of storied songs, and Sunday night at a sold-out Troy Savings Bank Music Hall we heard him do it just a little better and wiser than his last time around.
The Grammy winner shifted well between his slow, somber folk to his upbeat country humor. He introduced each song with a tale or two. You were caught between wanting the stories to go further but wanting the next song to start.
Early on he played from his 1971 debut album “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” He explained that he was delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service at the time “while writing protest songs on the side.”
Later on, he pulled from the same album the fierce “Angel from Montgomery,” one of the more intense songs of the night, slowing down for the line, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” He dedicated the song to Bonnie Raitt.
Before starting a quiet, “Souvenirs,” he called it his mother’s favorite song. “If I sang it to her, she’d cook me anything in the whole world.”
The full house was teeming with excitement, but while Prine sang, not only was the Hall completely silent, there was barely any movement at all.
Songs like a playful “Fish and Whistle” offered a break, particularly his humorous tale about trying to write a bad song for a “stubborn producer.” “Now I like this song.”
A songwriter’s songwriter, he filled the two hour show with straight-ahead, gritty songs about hard living, impoverished love, flies in the kitchen, and dead-end jobs.
“Dear Abby” captured his ability to shoot for laughs on the surface while underneath the lyrics cut through some truths. He broke up the piercing “That’s the Way That the World Goes ’Round” with a long story that meandered from misunderstood lyrics and early girlfriends to his file cabinet that made it through three marriages.
And while “Sam Stone” was written over three decades ago about the failed life of a war vet, the song played like he wrote it yesterday.
Jason Wilbur, Prine’s lead guitarist, opened the show with a 40-minute set solo on his acoustic. The 38-year-old told and sang of such familiar, revealing and modest stories that I’ll wager everyone in the Hall felt like his friend by the end of the set.