John Prine puts the folksy in folk; his songs are insightful, emotional portrayals of regular people and their regular problems, and the songs’ impact is due to the familiarity of their subject’s plights. We can identify with his characters, laugh at their shortcomings, and cry for their sorrows because they’re not too far removed from our own. Prine himself is the perfect vehicle for these tales, an unpretentious songwriter whose on-stage presence is welcoming and warm, full of good humor that electrifies his fans.
Live on Soundstage 1980 is a very unique and enlightening encapsulation of Prine’s work, not only featuring a live performance of some of his most popular songs, but interspersing them with a journey back to Prine’s hometown of Maywood, Illinois. Along the way, he serves as a tour guide, driving around his old neighborhood in a classic automobile, all black with shiny silver chrome. It’s the kind of car you think only existed in Dick Tracy comics until you see one in the steel.
The stage concert is a good survey of the prolific composer, covering his much-covered “Angel from Montgomery” and the brilliant, tear-jerking “Hello in There”, in addition to some wryly humorous cuts like “Spanish Pipedream”. The latter song has Prine in a bouncy romance with a “level headed” topless dancer and embracing some alternative ways of living in an effort to find meaning as peach-fed country folk.
“The Accident” is a cutting satire of fear and expectations, based on the true story of a car accident he witnessed back in Maywood. After leading the audience to the actual site of the two-car collision, he launches into the song’s sarcastic chorus which lambastes the naïve preoccupation with unlikely or inflated dangers when there are far more mundane things to worry about. “They don’t know how lucky they are,” he sings, “they could’ve run into that tree / been struck by a bolt of lightning”.
The most powerful song of the set is performed by Prine and his bandleader John Burns in the backyard of the home he grew up in. There’s no telling what the current owner thought of these two shaggy-haired men and their camera crew looking to film on their property, but their consent allowed Prine and Burns to create something truly beautiful. Together, they strum out the chords to “Paradise”. a touching song about the beauty of nature, someone like a less on-the-nose “Big Yellow Taxi”. It’s a striking story about his parent’s home in Western Kentucky, and how the rich, unspoiled environment from which his ancestors sprung had been scourged and devastated by strip mining. It couches its environmentalist themes in a blanket of nostalgia, perhaps presenting it more admirably than any pointed invective or protest song could.
In Prine’s old backyard, the song attains an even greater intimacy, and it’s as if the viewer has been invited to a cookout or to just hang out and have fun listening to them play. It’s so casual and authentic one can’t help but feel welcome to listen in.
Towards the end of the stage concert, Prine welcomes to the stage Billy Lee Riley, an old-timer even back in ‘80. Riley was in the Sun Records stable way back when (he’s best known for the raucous “Flyin’ Saucer Rock and Roll”) and he fits the archetypal rockabilly guitar slinger perfectly. He’s got a face carved from stone, a real old school rock ‘n’ roller who draws a sharp contrast with the hippy-dippy troubadour look Prine sports. Riley’s wide lapel, ivory white suit-jacket and strutting inject a bit of energy into the concert, and makes it clear that Riley is not just a musician or singer, he’s a performer. He’s there to put on a big, high-energy show, and tears through old classics like “Red Hot” and “No Name Girl” like a ‘50s drag racer.
Live on Soundstage 1980 is a great way to get better acquainted with John Prine. This DVD will give viewers wonderful insight into the characters and situations that populate his songs, and help them understand the world that helped produce it all.