A pair of Americana Music Award winners from two different eras comes to the Golden State Theatre.
Thursday, December 6, 2012
It was “sheer blind luck” that film critic Roger Ebert stumbled upon John Prine one evening back in 1970. Prine – a mailman by day and underground folk hero by night – was reluctantly performing an open mic night at a Chicago folk club. The short set of all original tunes blew Ebert away and subsequently led to the first review of Prine’s career.
“[Prine] appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” Ebert wrote in his Oct. 9, 1970 Chicago Sun-Times review headlined “Singing Mail Man Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.” “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
One of the songs Prine played that night more than 40 years ago was “Sam Stone” – originally called “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues.” The tune centers on an injured Korean War vet who returns home with a Purple Heart and a morphine addiction. Prine’s traditional fingerpicking is simple and his prose is accessible yet haunting: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes… ”
On the equally memorable “Angel from Montgomery” – another one of the standouts from Ebert’s review – Prine delves inside the mind of a Midwestern housewife who ponders an existential question about her hubby: “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, and have nothing to say?”
Both songs, along with most of the blue-collar musician’s catalog, don’t seem to lose their relevance with age; they’re just as cleverly understated as they were decades ago.
Prine – playing Friday at the Golden State Theatre – has been touring behind his 2011 release The Singing Mailman Delivers, which takes its title from the headline of Ebert’s review. The collection of live material, recorded before his 1971 debut, reiterates Prine’s ability to deliver lyrics that can rope anyone in; Johnny Cash even cited his music as one of the sources he’d go to for songwriting inspiration.
Justin Townes Earle, opening for Prine, is another singer-songwriter born with a natural aptitude for composing compelling stories that are simultaneously guileless yet heavy with the weight of emotional complexities.
“Dylan tried to cram as many words as he could in a line,” Earle told The Wall Street Journal. “My goal is to put as few words into a line as I can.”
Earle, son of singer-songwriter royalty Steve Earle, has already earned a reputation as a dynamic songwriting force, and by just 30: Last year, he won the Americana Music Award for Song of the Year for the title track of his fourth album, the acclaimed alt-country-meets rockabilly-meets Americana, Harlem River Blues.
Fueled by a Hammond B-3, electrified country guitar riffs and a gospel-flavored chorus, the instrumentation of “Harlem River Blues” – about a guy who wants to commit suicide by drowning – pumps with conflicting entities, like a cowboy in the middle of Times Square. Lyrically, the craftsmanship of Earle’s narrative tugs at the heartstrings. There’s no filler or metaphorical fluff: “Dirty water gonna cover me over and I’m not gonna make a sound.”
Shortly after Harlem River Blues was released in 2010, Earle relapsed into drug addiction after six years of sobriety. It’s been a battle of his since he was 12; this dark time around his daily intake consisted of an eight ball of cocaine and a half-gallon of vodka. After spending a month in rehab, Earle began recording Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now with a full horn section – and relapsed again. The album’s vibe is very different from Harlem River Blues, namely because Earle was doing heroin. He told Boston music critic Chris Talbott that he was able to see how the dope affected his writing on the album.
“It’s kind of an interesting perspective to write from,” he said.
Right off the bat, Earle expresses a yearning for his dad – Steve, also a longtime junkie, wasn’t around much during Justin’s childhood – on the Memphis soul-laden opener “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”
“I hear my father on the radio… Sometimes I wish that he’d just call,” Earle sings as the strings of an upright bass are slapped prominently. It’s as if the opioids numbed Earle just enough to be able to face the pain of abandonment he dealt with often as a kid.
The standout of Nothing’s Gonna Change, “Unfortunately, Anna,” is a melancholic, Springsteen-caliber ballad about a close-minded small town. The accompanying instrumentation is faint, almost like a ghostly afterthought that’s just audible enough under Earle’s baritone vocals.
“All this time you’ve been waitin’ for the world to change,” Earle tells the song’s protagonist, Anna. “It’s you who needs to change.”
Subconsciously, Earle may just be giving himself words to live by. What’s more certain is this: Our chance to listen in is something to value greatly.
JOHN PRINE and JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE perform starting 8pm, Friday, Dec. 7, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $69.45; $81.50. 297-2472.