John Prine is a senior citizen, a 71-year-old, two-time cancer survivor, so it stands to reason that there are intimations of mortality kicking around in the witty, wise, and utterly charming "The Tree of Forgiveness," his first set of new material in 13 years.
The album came out on Friday, and after opening out of town at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Prine brought his four-man band (and a special guest in Philadelphia indie rock hero Kurt Vile) to town Saturday for a profound and amusing headlining show at the Merriam Theater on South Broad Street.
The sage songwriter told tales and sang songs and apologized for his cracking voice, the consequence of a "second puberty," he said, this one "when your hair falls out and little people start calling you Grandpa."
The final verse of the new album's intriguingly titled "Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska 1967 (Crazy Bone)," is set in an old folks' home, where "far across the prairie, in the local cemetery, they've already got your name carved in stone." At the Merriam, it featured a scat singing interlude that owed more to Clarence "Frogman" Henry than Sarah Vaughan.
And on the part-spoken, part-sung "When I Get to Heaven," which ends the album and came toward the close of the sprightly, perfectly understated hour-and-45-minute set, Prine imagined an afterlife in which he would open up a nightclub called the Tree of Forgiveness, with plans to have mercy on "everybody ever done me any harm," including "a few choice critics, those syphilitic parasitics."
But while Prine's current state of mind is certainly informed by his chronological condition, the career-spanning show demonstrated what his powerfully empathetic songs have always been preoccupied with: age and the passage of time, going all the way back to his 1971 self-titled debut, when he was a former mail carrier and U.S. Army vet and rising songwriter in his mid-20s.
Among the half-dozen songs that Prine and his superb band – which included guitarist Jason Wilber and multi-string instrument wizard Fats Kaplin – did from the album John Prine, there was another one that made reference to entering through the pearly gates. That was "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore," a cautionary tale about the human cost of reflexive, unthinking patriotism.
Prine's formative years in the Vietnam era still cast a shadow over his deceptively folksy, darkly comic work. He and his well-dressed band began the show performing in front of a backdrop that depicted a general store in idealized Paradise, Ky.
The mostly acoustic picking and strumming tastefully evoked a nostalgic mood, but the sense of ease and comfort was shattered by the third verse in the opening song, about the images coming back from Southeast Asia: "The whole town saw Jimmy on the six o'clock news / His brains were on the sidewalk, his blood was on his shoes."
Prine made the connections between his early work and the uniformly strong material on his New Dave Cobb-produced Forgiveness. The new "Caravan of Fools," a haunting minor-key lament, which he introduced with the words, "I'm not saying this is a political song, but it has more verses that there are original cabinet members left in the current administration."
He also accurately called the album's "Summer's End" the "prettiest song I've written in a long time." It's not quite so lovely, however, as "Hello in There," the gentle plea for the able-bodied to empathize with the elderly that the singer recorded for his debut 47 years ago. Were there any dry eyes in the house after Prine sang that one after his band had left him alone at center stage? Not mine, I can tell you that.
Before Prine brought the band back out, he called on Vile, the Philly guitarist who is a keen admirer of the headliner's and whose finger-picking style and folkie proclivities made him a more logical choice as an opener than his cranked-up work with his band the Violators might lead one to expect.
Vile's opening set was marred by some sound issues at the start, but the hirsute 38-year-old singer ably recovered and built a bridge to the Prine's much-older fan base with his set-closing cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Downbound Train."
The real treat, though, was when Prine put him to work on guitar and vocals on duets on "Sam Stone" and "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," two of the elder statesman's best-loved and most heartbreaking songs.
Vile was dismissed after that, but he came back for a feel-good encore, as did Prine's wife, Fiona, who had previously been thanked "for saving my life" on "Boundless Love." All three sang in the "Paradise" finale, which Prine graciously dedicated to Vile's father, and which brought an already vocal and enthusiastic audience to its feet.