Regardless of what direction you travel from, The King Center is difficult to find. Connected to the Brevard Community College in Melbourne, Florida, the 1200 seat theater is a gem hidden amidst the camouflage of strip malls and chain restaurants. John Prine fans that made the effort to find the center were rewarded with a similarly exhaustive tour through what may be the most eclectic songbook of any living American songwriter.
Idaho native Josh Ritter opened the show, accompanied only by his guitar. He ripped through six quick songs with “Harrisburg” and “Kathleen” serving as highlights. He also tried to inject a bit of political humor into the evening, starting a song by saying, “Sarah Palin went to the University of Idaho. I knew we would contribute to the end of the world. I just didn’t know how.” The crowd, seemingly split on politics, uniformly responded to Ritter’s modern folk songs and animated delivery. Steering clear of songs from his critically acclaimed 2007 release, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, Ritter instead leaned toward the more sparsely produced tracks from his early records. Despite the brevity of the opening set, Ritter attracted a huge crowd of fans as he signed the CD’s offered in the King Center merchandise section. He was mum on rumors of a 2009 release but made it clear to everyone he hugged (which was everyone) that he was honored to be playing with John Prine.
After a thirty-minute break, the lights went down and the unassuming legend took the stage. Partnered with Dave Jacques on stand up bass and Jason Wilber on guitar, Prine launched into a fifteen-song set that touched nearly every fan favorite, but did so with vitality thanks, mainly, to the arrangements. He opened with “Spanish Pipedream”. After a prolonged introductory applause he leaned into the microphone and said, “This is my first time here. I think I’ll stay awhile”. And he did.
Met again with a roar of applause, he lit into a forty five-minute set that included “Fish and Whistle”, “Six O’clock News”,” Angel from Montgomery”, and “That’s the Way the World Goes Round”. The latter came attached to a great story about misunderstood lyrics, the similarity in the phrase “inch of water” and the word “enchilada,” and a crack about Jimmy Buffet’s affinity for writing songs about food. Each was a success. The Florida crowd registered its approval again as Wilbur and Jacques left the stage.
For the solo part of the show, Prine shared a few stories. An attentive fan may have concluded that none of them were new, but they were told with such a professional flare that they remained fall-down funny. After saying that he would never forgive himself for getting so close to Cape Canaveral and not playing his only astronaut song, he played fan favorite “Space Monkey” followed by “Hello in There”. He dedicated “She is My Everything” to his wife Fiona. He laughingly told the tale of writing “All the Best” as a response to being asked to sing at his ex-wife’s next wedding. With the introduction of “Sam Stone” his backing musicians re-joined him to wrap up the set.
Throughout the night, both Jacques and Wilber managed to be remarkable without being intrusive. In fact, Wilber may very well have been invisible were it not for the absence of the band’s trademark suit (left in a hotel the night before according to Prine). Nonetheless, his solo work was spectacular and tasteful. Jacques subtle shift between stand up and electric bass fit perfectly with Prine. Were this a three-piece fronted by an unknown it would stand as remarkable. To see them interact with a songwriting lesson made it all the more memorable.
The set ended with a rocking version of “Lake Marie”, a staple of Prine’s live shows that has become more powerful over time. After a strong ninety minutes, Prine left the stage to a standing ovation. Moments later, after an extra microphone was set up on stage, he walked back out with his band and Josh Ritter in tow. They finished with a three-song encore that ended with “Paradise”.
The King Center was a perfect fit for Prine. A more raucous club setting would surely have drowned out the softer moments of the set. The sound was impeccable and the events on stage were broadcast via two big screen televisions to the packed crowd in the balcony.
The temptation, watching the two wordsmiths from different generations play side by side, was to view the stage as past and present in one place. Given Prine’s tireless performances and peerless song writing, that would be a mistake. Prine, like Ritter, is still very much at the top of his game. And I know a thousand Floridians who would agree.