"I guess we're in the forgiveness business," John Prine told his duet partner Brandi Carlile on stage last night at his sold-out show at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Celebrating the release of The Tree of Forgiveness, his first album in 13 years, that particular John Prine-ism perhaps best summed up a night of joy and love at one of the biggest shows of the veteran singer-songwriter's career.
It also marked a torch-passing moment, as Prine temporarily ceded the spotlight midway through his show for a run of duets of his most beloved folk standards like "Angel From Montgomery" and "In Spite of Ourselves" to Carlile, who is currently enjoying her own star-making moment on the heels of her similarly-titled new album By The Way, I Forgive You.
Friday night's Radio City concert was a generations-spanning, culminating celebration of the late-career resurgence of John Prine, who over the past decade has unknowingly and unassumingly taken on the role of spiritual and musical godfather to an entire generation of 20 and 30-something country/folk-leaning singer-songwriters.
One of Prine's many descendants is Sturgill Simpson, who, as the billed co-headliner, delivered a loose, impassioned solo-acoustic show to begin the evening. Performing for the first time in six months, Simpson offered scaled-down, folk-driven renditions of his most well-known trailblazing country-roots originals like "Turtles All the Way Down" and "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)."
The Kentucky-born singer’s 17-song set drew from an expansive range of material, incorporating folk traditionals ("Handsome Molly" and "Could You Love Me (One More Time)") covers from Bruce Springsteen ("I'm on Fire") and the Bee Gees ("Come on Over"), as well as his signature take on When In Rome’s “The Promise.”
Prine, said Simpson, is "nothing short of an American treasure," before adding that the 71-year-old singer is "also one of four people in Nashville that will talk to me."With Friday night serving as his unofficial record-release party, John Prine's career-bookmarking concert offered a most convincing case for the enduring consistency of his songwriting, with more than two-thirds of his set drawing either from his new album or his classic 1971 self-titled debut, released 47 years earlier. After opening with a breathless take of the despondent mini-saga "Six O'Clock News," Prine, backed by a newly reconfigured quartet, jumped into high gear on Tree of Forgiveness highlights "Knockin' On Your Screen Door" and "Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)," the latter received as though it were already a well-worn fan favorite.
Playing at Radio City for the first time in his 50-year career, Prine's age-weathered voice was in fine form from the onset, accentuating the time-tested vulnerability on old classics ("Hello in There") and newly personal confessions ("Boundless Love") alike. Elsewhere, Prine drew from his smattering of politically-tinged offerings, including "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and the veteran's lament "Sam Stone." "I won't say there's anything political about this song other than there are more verses than there are original members of the cabinet,” he joked when introducing the new somber minor-chord dirge "Caravan of Fools." Later in the evening, Prine pleased longtime fans when he brought out Simpson for a pair of duets on Seventies and Eighties rarities "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" and "Pretty Good."
The night came to a fitting close when Prine, joined by his wife, son, Carlile and several kazoos, bade farewell to the capacity crowd with his new album closer "When I Get to Heaven." Prine delivered the song's gently-strummed verses in a captivating, fully a capella arrangement before erupting into the song's ramshackle sing-along chorus with the band. But before he took his final bow, the singer neatly summed up the celebratory evening with the song’s final words. "This old man," Prine sang, "is going to town."