A night of wisdom (Prine) and grit (Williams)
John Prine is a master builder when it comes to songs, meticulously choosing his words and setting his arrangements for maximum emotional resonance. Lucinda Williams is a songwriting wrecking crew, knocking down her targets with blunt force even when her tone is cool, measured, and controlled.
Yet for their stylistic differences, Prine and Williams perfectly paired Sunday at Bank of America Pavilion for a night of songs worthy of the title modern classics.
Prine headlined with a 21-song set that ambled along for two hours. Guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques (introduced as a Worcester man) flanked Prine for most of the performance, packing even more punch into the vivid lyrical imagery and piercing observations.
Like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, Prine has a cache of early work that forms the foundation for all that he does. He played seven of the 13 songs from his profound 1971 debut album, yet (also like Johnny and Kris) those tunes remain vibrant and alive. Everyone was waiting for the line in “Sam Stone” about the hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes, but Prine still made it sound chilling.
The wisdom that belied his age when Prine first aired some of this material is no longer a mystery. At 65, Prine has simply grown into the songs “Hello in There,” “Six O’Clock News,” and others that assess the fragility of our days.
Following treatment for cancer on his neck, Prine sings in a lower register that gives his songs a more pronounced country feel even as they keep their roots in folk music.
Not all of Prine’s songs end in a sigh. “Spanish Pipedream” opened Prine’s set with the sort of rascally grin that also popped up in the whimsy of “Fish and Whistle” and “suck it up” advice of “Dear Abby.” Even “Christmas in Prison” had a slice of dark humor in it.
Most of Prine’s songs unfold like short stories. Then there’s “Lake Marie” which blossomed into a multi-tiered novella about the power of myth, romance, and “Louie, Louie.”
Williams and guitarist Doug Pettibone opened with an hour of grit and soul. Williams aired the new song “When I Look at the World,” a bluesy complaint that fit right in with the smoldering rage of “Changed the Locks” and “Joy.” Williams and Pettibone joined Prine for his encore of “Paradise,” putting some frolic into the lament.