John Prine at the Ulster Hall
It’s very rare that a song takes up a baseball bat and hits you on the head with it, but that is what happened metaphorically to me sometime in 1971, one eye on my homework and the other watching The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Then a song came on that blew me away.
The song in question was Sam Stone by a 20-something American songwriter called John Prine.
The story of a veteran of (probably) the Vietnam War who ends up a drug addict – drug abuse was a common feature of the daily lives of US soldiers in wars even back to the American Civil War – the song had a power and a pathos, not easy to combine, that has made it one of my favourite songs ever.
The next day I found myself in Harrison’s record shop in Castle Street buying Prine’s eponymous debut LP only to find other jewels lying within its black vinyl, from the heartbreaking study of growing old Hello in There, to the singsongy elegy for a forgotten landscape in Paradise and on to the tongue in cheek, Illegal Smile.
John Prine has been playing in my head ever since.
I went to Dublin to hear the two-time Grammy winner sing a few years ago but the Chicago-born former postman was in the Ulster Hall last night and put on a fabulous show – a great feat from a man who has come through two bouts of cancer, throat and lung.
The voice is more gravelly of course, but the delivery and the mind are pin-sharp.
And so an Ulster Hall full of people who have had Prine as a musical companion over decades were treated to the all classics as well as songs from his new album, Tree of Forgiveness, his first collection of self-composed songs in a decade.
Playing with a terrific band, the evening flowed back and forth through time anti-war protest songs (Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore) to the story of unfufilled women’s lives (Angel of Montgomery) to Prine’s plans for his future move to the afterlife in When I Get to Heaven.
It was a show that ran the whole gamut of emotions and the audience loved it.
And what about Sam Stone?
Well, the band left the stage for Prine to sing half a dozen songs solo, including my favourite.
The delivery was low-key and all the more powerful for it.
“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.
Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.”
Worth waiting 47 years for.