BOSTON – It’s been a long time since a performer hit me in both the heart and the funny bone. But then, John Prine has few peers in the songwriting game.
The 71-year-old former mailman, who now calls Nashville home, is an American treasure.
Friday evening, Prine and his multi-tasking four-piece band were in prime form at the Wang Theatre, which was packed with loving, devoted fans. In spite of ourselves, we chuckled at a funny/tragic lyric (“I know a man who’s got a lot to lose/A pretty nice fella, kinda confused/Got muscles in his head that’ve never been used/He thinks he owns half of this town/He goes out drinkin’ gets a big red nose/Beats his old lady with a rubber hose/Then he takes her out to dinner Buys her new clothes/That’s the way that the world goes ’round”) and then choked back tears at lost-love observations (“The moon and stars hang out in bars just talkin’/I still love that picture of us walkin’/Just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted/Summer’s end came faster than we wanted”).
The show’s highlights included perfectly paced now-classic songs from Prine’s 1971 debut album. He was only 24 when he wrote “Sam Stone” (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes”) about a drug-addicted Vietnam veteran who overdoses; “Hello in There,” about an old lonely husband and wife; and “Angel From Montgomery,” popularized by Bonnie Raitt, which describes a housewife’s dream to escape from her mundane life.
All were performed Friday night. All earned thunderous ovations.
Prine also performed all 10 songs from “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his first album of new material in 13 years. They fit in seamlessly with the old stuff, and his knack for the clever aw-shucks turn of phrase remains strong.
The best of the new songs were “Caravan of Fools,” with violin accompaniment, the witty “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” and the melodically beautiful but devastatingly sad “Summer’s End,” to which Prine teased that John Prine Kleenex were available at the merch booth in the lobby.
He started strongly, with an oldie about a troubled young man’s death (“Six O’Clock News”) that benefited greatly from mournful pedal steel guitar, bowed double bass and harmonica.
The wry protest song “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven More” is more potent in this age of Trump.
A cancer survivor, Prine’s vocal register is low and deep these days. But he delivers his well-crafted songs with confidence and character. He stood alone on stage, armed only with his acoustic guitar, for a five-song spin toward the end of the set. It was sublime.
Prine even danced around a bit during the set-closing “Lake Marie,” drawing smiles from his band members and laughs from the audience.
“Paradise,” another standout from that 1971 debut, ended the show on a sparkling note. Peter Wolf, the J Geils Band frontman who opened, returned to sing harmony on the song about how strip mining of coal devastated a community.
Wolf, backed by his Midnight Travelers, delivered a sure and steady 11-song opening set that featured mid-tempo selections from his solo career. He tossed in a cover of Otis Rush’s “Homework” and Geils tune “Cry One More Time.” His band, fueled by some of Boston’s finest musicians, including guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry, is first-rate. And few frontmen are as dynamic as Wolf.