There’s nothing like fresh material for a great American storyteller like John Prine.
When he returned to sold-out Northrop auditorium in Minneapolis on Friday night, the legendary songwriter not only was touring behind his first album of new material since 2005, but he talked about his former touring partner, singer-guitarist Leon Redbone, who died Thursday.
After one of their concerts, to see if he could catch the eccentric Redbone out of character, Prine knocked on the young vaudevillian’s hotel door at 3 a.m. Redbone answered immediately, wearing his familiar sunglasses, Panama hat, white shirt and less familiar boxer shorts and socks with garters. Prine was instantly invited in and asked what he’d like to drink.
“Cognac,” he recalled. Without missing a beat, Redbone pulled out a bottle of Christmas VSOP and two snifters.
At Northrop, as Prine was reliving that late night, you could sense that he was chuckling inside remembering his old pal, the kind of vivid character who could inhabit one of Prine’s classic songs.
That sweet reminiscence combined with top-notch new tunes and essential oldies made for a very satisfying evening of storytelling, especially with the table set by Todd Snider’s as-clever-as-Prine-and-just-as-funny opening segment, which earned a standing ovation.
A masterful wordsmith, Prine has always had an eye for poignant stories about the human condition, often with a touch of humor or sentimentality, always set to sparse music so the words and stories penetrate deeper.
After enduring two bouts of cancer and writer’s block, Prine, 72, is enjoying a bit of a comeback thanks to last year’s acclaimed “The Tree of Forgiveness” (his highest charting album ever) and this month’s deserved induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York City.
In honor of this renaissance, Prine is touring with a full band for the first time in years, with drummer Kenneth Blevins and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin joining longtime accompanists Jason Wilber on guitar and Dave Jacques on bass.
With Kaplin on fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel guitar, the music had a pronounced twang befitting the Illinois-launched Prine’s longtime residence in Nashville.
That meant 1971’s “Spanish Pipedream” became up-tempo and twangy, with some slap bass. That meant some smoldering rockin’ blues on 1995’s “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody.” That meant a Tex-Mex vibe for last year’s “I Have Met My Love Today.”
While the new numbers fit seamlessly into Prine’s repertoire, the man in black with tufts of salt-and-pepper hair made them more effective by telling stories about their inspiration. For instance, one came from a fishing buddy who had related childhood experiences in Nebraska.
After Prine sang the song for his friend, he heard the complaint: The guy was from Norfolk and had never been to Lincoln.
Retorted Prine: “It’s too late because some of the best lines in the song rhyme with Lincoln.”
That long-winded story made the long-titled “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone),” so much more enjoyable.
Other winners from the new album included “Summer’s End,” a wistful piece about endings and new beginnings, and the Western swing “When I Get to Heaven,” a delightful ditty about death, drinking and eternal rock ’n’ roll.
With a singing voice that sounded stronger and less raspy than at his other recent Twin Cities shows, Prine delivered the 1971 classic “Hello in There” — about older people being lonely because no one talks to them — with enrapturing poignancy. It was one of many highlights.
By the time Prine got to the story song “Lake Marie” late in his 110-minute performance, his voice sounded weathered and weary.
However, near the end of the 10-minute epic, he set his acoustic guitar on the stage and danced a jocular little jig as the band played on, shimmying into the wings.
He knows how to put a kicker on a story even without words.