John Prine is, in many ways, the ultimate songwriter’s songwriter. Revered by his peers and his ride-or-die fans, over the past five decades he’s written many brilliant songs with incisive melodies and tongue-twisting (and brain-twisting) lyrics that have been covered by artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash and John Denver to My Morning Jacket and Jason Isbell. Yet he’s never had a blockbuster hit single himself and could walk down the street in virtually any city in the world — except Nashville — without creating a ruckus, even though he’s written such classics as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” “Sam Stone,” “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round” and the Vietnam-war lament “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” (Social consciousness is a big part of Prine’s music: He sounded off to Variety last month about recent abortion laws in the South.)
The bard’s influence and rabid following were nowhere more in evidence than at “Inspired by John Prine,” a tribute concert at New York’s Public Arts Wednesday night, on the eve of his much-deserved induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Stephen Colbert, Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, Natalie Merchant, Nathaniel Rateliff, the Antibalas horn section and others performed his songs, and the evening was capped with Prine himself, accompanied by Raitt and his longtime friend and collaborator Keith Sykes performing “Paradise.” (Unfortunately, scheduled performer Sturgill Simpson had a last-minute conflict.)
The concert was presented by Prine’s publisher, Downtown Music, and proceeds went to 826NYC, the New York chapter of the non-profit organization dedicated to developing the writing skills of young people.
The concert was acoustic — there was nary a drum kit on the stage — but the set was imaginatively paced. The lyrics to one song were delivered as a poetry reading; the Antibalas horns, consisting of two saxes, two trumpets and a trombone, served up a rousing Dixieland-style rendition of “In Spite of Ourselves” and led nearly the entire audience in a singalong on the closing chorus; the constantly shifting performers — each played just one song — ensured that things stayed lively.
Colbert, who’d come straight from taping “The Late Show,” poked fun at his suit and “ready-for-TV makeup” and performed “How Lucky,” accompanied (rather shakily) on guitar by CBS News’ John Dickerson. Both of them spoke of courting their college girlfriends — now their wives — with Prine’s music. “So John Prine is responsible for two marriages!” Colbert marveled. “Even his own!”
Elsewhere, Bareilles opened the show with a moving take on “Angel From Montgomery,” Norah Jones and Richard Julian performed a stellar version of “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round,” Merchant sang a somber “Hello in There,” Rateliff delivered a stately “Sam Stone,” and the War & Treaty made a dazzling display of vocal prowess.
And while any concert with these performers and those songs is going to be special, what was perhaps most remarkable about this one was how chill it all was. Bareilles, who’d performed on national television on the Tonys on Sunday night, was spotted walking casually down the sidewalk on her way to the show; Colbert was just hanging out in the crowd after he performed, taking selfies and joking with fans; Prine himself did not watch the show from the VIP area upstairs but instead sat atop one of the booths lining the wall halfway back the venue, with Raitt on one side and Fiona, his wife, on the other, graciously greeting well-wishers throughout the show and singing along on several occasions.
Before he, Raitt and Sykes launched into the closing song, Prine, while clearly moved by the evening, defined it with a perfect combination of his trademark humor and self-deprecation: “It’s kinda like singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself,” he laughed.