Tuesday, March 30, 2010

John Prine - Ryman Auditorium - Nashville

I've consistently listened to Americana, alt-country, whatever for over 20 years. As a teen, I even dug bands such as Skynyrd, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a bit of outlaw country, a smidgin' of Dylan and his like, etc. But somehow, someway for the vast majority of that time I overlooked one of the greats - John Prine.

Its not like I didn't have my chances. Most singers I like would name-drop Prine along the way as one of their musical and/or songwriting influences. Yet I ignored the tip. Bonnie Raitt had a hit with Angel From Montgomery, but it wasn't enough for me to pursue more music from the writer of the song.

Finally about 6 or 7 years ago, the suggestion to listen to him was too much to ignore. I introduced a friend/co-worker to Robert Earl Keen and Todd Snider. In turn, he asked me if I'd ever listened to John Prine. When I said he was always on my "to do but never done" list, he helped me out.

For that introduction, I'm eternally grateful. I now have many of his songs/lyrics committed to memory and react like Pavlov's pup when I hear an opening chord or riff. I also quickly added many of his sho-nuff CDs and a few bootlegs to my collection and most recently got his Live from Sessions at West 54th DVD. (Fantastic! Get it.) The man can weave adjectives and adverbs, similes and metaphors, life and death, hope and hopelessness, humor and despair, and vivid mental pictures in his lyrics as perhaps no one else can - sometimes all within a single song!

The one thing I haven't been able to do since joining the Prine party late was see him live. He performed with Mac Wiseman at Nashville's new symphony hall a couple of years ago in support of their duet CD Standard Songs for Average People, but the tickets for that show sold out quicker than a jack rabbit in heat.

This time, however, I was ready and able to get tickets for last Thursday's show at the famed Ryman Auditorium.

With touring productions having evolved to an alarming excess over the years, it was cool to see the simplicity of the Ryman stage. No fancy lights. No stacks of amps. No drum riser enclosed in a cage or outfitted with hydraulic actuators. No flash pod boxes disguised at the stage's outer edges. Prine had a simple folding table on stage with some of his needs - picks, harmonicas, etc. Dave Jacques' upright bass was just leaned up against a big touring case.

Leon Redbone opened the show for a 40 minute or so set. Though I've heard of him for years, I was more familiar with his iconic image than I was his music. Truthfully yet sadly, I knew him best for his Panama Jack look and his appearance in a Budweiser commercial from over 25 years ago!

Though he speaks a bit softly and a lot nasally, what can be understood was funny. Early in the show, someone shouted out "How's Lulu?" - clearly an inside joke/story I didn't get. Leon paused and smiled. "Well, I ain't seen ol' Lulu in years." He then turned to his accompanist and asked him if he knew the song. When he shook his head to say no, he jokingly said "well, what kind of piano player are you anyway?"

After performing the jazz classic Ain't Misbehaving, he claims he performed it with Hank Williams, Sr. He said his nasally, lower-octave voice couldn't hit those falsetto notes Hank could. He said he wasn't sure if Hank liked the pairing or not. But he thought maybe he didn't because he hadn't heard from him since! (Hank Williams Jr. recorded the song, but I'm not sure Hank Williams, Sr. ever did. Apparently a lot of the stories Leon tells are great entertainment but not exactly grounded in truth.)

As the stage was re-arranged a bit and the headliner came out to a huge applause, another very obvious, striking difference separates Prine from the pretenders. Prine, bassist Dave Jacques, and guitarist Jason Wilbur all wore suits and ties. Very old school. I had noticed this in the DVD I've got, but it was interesting to see the class exhibited live.

With such a rich set list, I found myself singing along to many of John's songs. The songs are just that great, and the pull to sing them was just too strong. I tried to sing under my breath or lay off altogether in case others around me were bothered by it. But when I'd stop, I noticed a constant murmur in the Ryman. Everyone else was doing the same thing!

With a set list like this, can you blame me?
  1. Spanish Pipedream
  2. Oldest Baby in the World
  3. Crooked Piece of Time
  4. Spend Night With Me
  5. Souvenirs
  6. Grandpa Was a Carpenter
  7. Fish and Whistle
  8. Bruise Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
  9. Glory of True Love (written with Roger Cook)
  10. All The Best
  11. Angel in Montgomery
  12. Jesus, The Missing Years
  13. The Sins of Memphisto
  14. That's The Way The World Goes 'Round
  15. Please Don't Bury Me
  16. Sam Stone - after plenty of applause, mumbled audience singing, shout-outs, etc., John played this one to a completely silent, almost reverential audience.
  17. Something about "if you wish on a far east star" - I'll admit I lost this one. Bathroom, fresh beer, and merch table break.
  18. Saddle in the Rain
  19. Ain't Hurtin' Nobody
  20. Hello In There
  21. Lake Marie
  22. Encore: Paradise - Prine's brother was introduced to come out and sing alongside him.
My only complaint about the evening was the tight timeline the Ryman seemed to have on the show. Leon Redbone came on right at 8:00 - the published start time on the ticket. That's a nice change of place from club shows where 8:00 likely means 9:15 at the earliest. But the prompt start also set the tone for how the evening would end. The auditorium had a big, red digital clock just off the stage. It likely wasn't viewable by the folks on the floor. (I didn't see it a couple of years ago when I was seated on floor level for a Robert Earl Keen show.) But it was viewable from our balcony seats, and I'm sure it was quite obvious to the performers. They also put a white analog clock on the stage floor right by Prine's monitors. Pay attention to the time John! Don't run over! Time is money Mr. Prine!

While I thoroughly enjoyed the set list, I would have loved to have heard another few favorites. (Who am I kidding? We could have stayed all night and still possibly not heard all of Prine's great material.) One encore wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the audience, but I'm guessing the show was at or beyond the scheduled time. So it was one and done for the encore.

Some songs I had hoped for were Illegal Smile, In Spite of Ourselves, and Milwaukee Here I Come. But as Mick and the boys sing, you can't always get what you want.

The other thing that chewed about the evening was the absence of the very friend who introduced me to Prine's music. We bought tickets to the show some 4 or 5 months in advance. Our plans were still in sync 24 hours before showtime. And then Friday morning hit. He caught some bug from his kids and apparently rolled out of bed only to make it as far as the couch the rest of the day. The ticket wasn't wasted as another mutual friend gladly accepted the use of it. But I hated that Murphy's Law jumped up and bit the very person who had looked forward to the show for so long.

I've now seen Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Todd Snider, and John Prine in a span of about 5 months. Its pretty hard to imagine how the Nashville concert scene is going to top this run over the spring and summer months.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stoney LaRue at Exit/In

Early in contemporary music history, we had country and we had rock-and-roll. Over time, rock splintered into far more subgroups than country. Over the last 25-30 years, however, country has started to catch up and has gone through its own segmentation. Country is now largely divided into two buckets: Nashville Music Row country and Alt-Country/Americana. The former is pretty clear. The latter is not-so-clear and represents a catch-all for all sorts of country-influenced music that's not part of the Music Row formula.

A subset of Americana to emerge has been something called Red Dirt country. What is it? I have no idea except that Stoney LaRue claims to be a part of it. Stoney is from Oklahoma. Because he's not from Texas, maybe the label is simply supposed to separate music such as his from like-sounding music by Texas performers. In any event, Stoney and his band rolled into Nashville last Thursday, and I decided to give them a live listen.

I arrived in time to see the last song by the opening band, The White Owls. The lead singer looked like a cross between Jack White and Johnny Depp. The song was apparently titled "Its Not Over" based on the chorus. Truer words were never spoken. I don't know how long they'd been into it as I went through the door, but the song continued ...a lot..."Its Not Over" many times...for another seven or eight minutes as I got my first brew and found a spot on the floor.

After an acceptable timeout for the set change and some cool filler house music (including Hayes Carll, George Jones, and James McMurtry), out walked the bandana'd, bearded, black-shirted, backed by his band, feature act. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

I was introduced to Stoney LaRue's music by two sources.
The Exit/In's house sound seemed a bit off. While the drummer, bass, lead guitar, and Stoney's lyrics were loud and clear, the same couldn't be said for the rest of the band. The mandolin/fiddle player and harmony vocalist could barely be heard. Fortunately, the Exit/In is small enough you could still hear him a bit without being mic'd. Also, the keyboardist had a boatload of equipment, but his keys were overpowered by the rest of the band.

Nonetheless, the band played about 2 hours and shared a bit of banter with the audience. I'm not sure if Stoney personally knew any of the folks up front, or if he is normally one to chatter back and forth with his audience. Either way, he seemed to have a good time - especially when two Jaeger Bombs were purchased and given to him.

The show ended with "Oklahoma" - or so it seemed. It was a great tune, but when it ended abruptly Stoney and the band took off their instruments, gave a tepid wave, and left the stage. That was it - or at least many folks thought so. About half the crowd immediately headed for the door despite the house lights still being down. I stayed knowing every band I've seen always has the obligatory encore - regardless of audience reaction.

But in this case, there was no clapping, hollering, anything. Just acceptance. For the 50% of the audience who stuck around, most just started talking or using their phones just like they had before the show began. A very puzzling experience.

I kept my seat knowing the band would return. They all do, right? Sure enough, the band came back out and ripped off a good number that included band intros.

Although I'm not completely familiar with all of Stoney's music titles, I think I captured pretty much all of the set list. Most of the cuts were from his first studio release "The Red Dirt Album".
  1. I Wanna Live
  2. Shot Full of Holes
  3. Looking Out for No. 1
  4. Long Black Veil (by request)
  5. Solid Gone
  6. Breakfast? Betty? - I missed his intro to this song while talking to girl near me about the merch table. Competing priorities. Oh well.
  7. Texas Moon > One Chord Song
  8. Staying Out of Trouble
  9. Downstream (a new song)
  10. Going Down in Flames
  11. Gravel Yard (I think - It was a bluegrass song, and aren't they all about the same anyway?)
  12. Idabel Blues
  13. Velvet (a new song - a ballad - could a song named Velvet be any other type?)
  14. On The Outside (?) - I think this may have been the title based on the chorus. The unique aspect of this song was Stoney's guitar sound. He queued some kind of sound effect to create a sound that reminded me of Frampton Comes Alive. The big difference between then and now is it was Stoney's guitar was Pete's voice box.
  15. Oklahoma
  16. Encore: Blind Man (written by fellow Oklahoma songwriter Tom Skinner) > Band Intros > Oklahoma Breakdown > Spirit in the Sky
The introduction of the keyboardist and mandolin/fiddle player were pretty perfunctory. Everyone welcome from wide spot Texas Mr. So-and-So! A smile and head nod to the crowd and a short solo followed. Stoney then turned to bassist Jesse Fritz (the only name I caught) to introduce him. As he led into his solo, the whole band transitioned to Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall". Hey Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone!

Once Fritz' run was done, the band resumed with Stoney's Oklahoma Breakdown. As that song wound down, Stoney introduced his lead guitarist. Suddenly, the lauched into into Zeppelin's "The Ocean".

Upon returning to Breakdown, the band closed out the night with a cover of the Norman Greenbaum's classic "Spirit in the Sky". Not exactly a song I'd expect from a "red dirt" band, but it kept me on my toes and put a smile on my face.

Because I haven't found any Nashville vid footage, here's an example of Blind Man and Stoney's"Framptonish" guitar work from a show earlier this year:

While I enjoyed the show, Stoney's casual interaction with the audience during the night, and the surprise drop-ins of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin, he still has room to grow as a songwriter. Too many of his songs follow one after the other with a repeated, predictable, 120 BPM 4/4 time. Not every song is composed this way. Tunes such as Idabel Blues, Gravel Road, and On the Outside differed. But enough songs did follow that pattern that it was noticeable. Hopefully, he'll vary it a bit with future releases.