By Dan Condon/Double J Radio /March 7, 2019
It’s an exhausting time of year for music lovers in Australia. A proliferation of international guests of all musical persuasions have descended upon us, ensuring our calendars are packed, our wallets are empty, and our hearts are full.
It’s also an incredibly enriching time. And for fans of the best in great American songwriting and storytelling, March 2019 feels richer than just about any other month on record.
Over two consecutive nights, I had the honour of witnessing two of the best songwriters of all time play rare Australian shows. Shows that exemplified just how powerful songwriting can be when its stripped of overthought and intellectualised fluff and presented with heart and meaning.
Watching American country icon John Prine play songs is like examining a beautifully-made wooden box. The materials are all familiar and easy to source. Superficial cracks give it character, but you know that it’s as solid as can be.
On paper, there’s nothing to say we couldn’t make a box like this ourselves. But we couldn’t. Because it takes a special degree of toil, care, courage and craftsmanship to create something so perfect and so full of character.
Prine’s songs are beautiful, sturdy, a little worn and weathered, and deceptively simple. There are no hundred-dollar words in what he sings; these are simple stories about regular people feeling familiar emotions.
Brisbane’s The Tivoli was packed to capacity for his first Australian show in a quarter of a century (his only other Australian date was WOMADelaide 1993, if you don’t count an appearance on the Midday Show).
A large part of his set was drawn from his 1971 eponymous debut, a record that established him as a titan of songwriting and a record that sounds as relevant today as ever.
‘Spanish Pipedream’ remains a tree-change anthem, a fantastical, rollicking tale about running away with a dancer and living a simple life.
Conversely, ‘Hello In There’ is a heartbreaking portrayal of loneliness and a sage reminder to be kind to our elders. And heartbreakers like ‘Far From Me’ and ‘Angel From Montgomery’ cut deep.
Midway through the set, Prine ditched his dapper band – a group of utter pros who don’t miss a note all night – and took centre-stage all on his lonesome.
It was undoubtedly the most powerful part of the set, as he ran through a couple of light-hearted favourites like ‘Dear Abby’ and ‘That’s The Way The World Goes Round’, and a couple of his sweetest moments like ‘All The Best’ and ‘Donald and Lydia’.
That interlude ended with ‘Sam Stone’, a song about post-war PTSD that is so affecting almost 50 years since it was released, we can’t even imagine the punch it packed in the wake of the Vietnam conflict (in which Prine fought). ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes’ may be the most crushing lyric ever committed to tape.
Watching Alejandro Escovedo is an altogether different experience.
The Texan singer has never been to Australia before. He’s spent most of his career in the shadows, plugging away in relative obscurity but frequently popping up in lists of artists and critics favourite songwriters.
There must have been 40 or so crammed into the suburban Junk Bar for the first of four Escovedo shows over two nights, shows that took on a far more relaxed but no less powerful tone than what Prine had turned on the night before.
The 90-minute set was roughly half stories and half songs, the charming singer pulling every single person in the room into his world as he told the stories behind the songs, or at least stories that related to them.
He told us about being forced to leave everything he ever knew behind as a child before playing ‘San Antonio Rain’ from his 2012 album Big Station. He told us about his old neighbour Billy Smith before 1992 song ‘Five Heart’s Breaking’. He told us about his father before the powerful ‘Wave’ from 2001.
Tim Rogers (yes, that Tim Rogers) served as sideman for the evening, his gnarled guitar work in new song ‘Teenage Luggage’ and backing vocals in Escovedo’s touching ode to his song, ‘Down In The Bowery’ taking them to another level.
Escovedo talked about the time his band supported the Sex Pistols at their final ever show. He sang ‘Sister Lost Soul’ for The Gun Club’s Jeffrey Lee Pierce. He told us about the time he sang ‘Always A Friend’ with Bruce Springsteen in front of 50,000 people.
His experiences and stories are intrinsic to his work.
While Prine arrived seemingly fully-formed on his first album, armed with some of the best material he’d ever write, Escovedo is more of a journeyman. He’s collected songs as he goes – through a strange and displaced childhood, through adolescent (and beyond) punk bands, through critical acclaim and a shockingly small amount of commercial success.
If Prine’s set is a beautiful box, Escovedo’s feels more like a scrapbook. Of stories, memories, and amazing songs. They’re a little more contorted, but all imbued with as much meaning as Prine’s.
There are many similarities in what these two men bring to us through their music. There are also many differences. What an honour it was to spend two nights full of their rich stories and untouchable songs.
John Prine plays the following shows:
Thursday 7 March – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday 9 March – State Theatre, Sydney
Alejandro Escovedo plays the following shows:
Thursday 7 March – Junk Bar, Brisbane
Saturday 9 – Monday 11 March – Port Fairy Folk Festival
Tuesday 12 March – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne
Wednesday 13 March – Caravan Club, Melbourne