Last Night: John Prine at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Golden Gate Park
Friday, Oct. 2, 2009
Better than: Listening to John Prine indoors, minus a box of cold beers and the scent of funnel cakes around you.
Golden Gate Park has played host to numerous music events over the summer, from the gigantic Outside Lands to the smaller radio station and hiphop concerts. But the season of outdoor shows is fading like evening sunlight, the change notable in the chill creeping into the air in the middle of John Prine's set last night at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Picnicers who had stripped down to tank tops and shorts to beat the blaze all afternoon pulled on their layers as it started to feel like fall in the park meadow. But no one was better dressed for the event than one of Friday's big headliners: John Prine, who sported a snazzy suit (as did all his bandmates) in a performance that helped send the park's giant music gatherings out on a highly memorable note.
Prine took the stage just around happy hour, hundreds of fans settled into the grass before him far beyond the festival-food booths, families and friends passing around BYOB cases of Pabst and airplane-sized bottles of wine. The legendary songwriter came armed with plenty of droll banter--some of which, you'll see in YouTube clips, he's used before. But he's funny enough that's easy to forgive.
He opened the song "Fish and Whistle" with the explanation, "I never meant to write this song, but I was working with a stubborn record producer." The producer was apparently pushing Prine to finish an album he wasn't happy with, and, Prine explained, "I'll show him, I'll write the worst song in the word." Of course, once the song was finished, the songwriter ended up liking it--as did the crowd around me, who swayed and sang along to every word.
"Glory of True Love," another popular bit from his set, is a song Prine co-wrote; it's also a song he had his wife in mind for, "hoping that the other guy didn't."
Other hits from his setlist included "Angel From Montgomery," which he wrote for Bonnie Raitt, "Crooked Piece of Time," and "Bear Creek Blues." The last number is pretty perfect example of Prine's gift for storytelling; he planted images of water that "takes like cherry wine" in a scene of train robbers and long lost girlfriends. That same songwriting craft came into play with his closer, "Paradise," a tune set in Western Kentucky where kids shoot pistols at empty pop bottles and Mr. Peabody's coal train takes the Green River away.
Overall, Prine made for a pretty perfect way to while away an Indian Summer afternoon, standing in a grassy clearing (pressed against giant backpacks and people who can't handle their giant, strap-on chairs, but I digress), picturing smaller towns and bigger scenes and the humorous anecdotes that lead to Prine's painting these stories into songs in the first place.
Critial bias: As always, the free bluegrass 'n' more festival was jam-packed. Some people really don't understand why it's not a good idea to bring their pets to an event if they'll eventually want to squeeze up towards the front. You dog will not be sad to miss a music festival if you leave that furry hassle at home for the rest of the weekend.