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Prine's lyricism takes hold and doesn't let go

From a song about a patriotic motorist so blinded by all the Stars and Stripes decals on his windshield that he crashes and dies (''Your Flag Decal") to a song about an overweight small town girl ''who hides her thoughts like a cat/ Behind her small eyes, and sunk deep in her fat" (''Donald and Lydia"), John Prine has always had an edge, an X factor of poetic ability that has set him apart from the country/rock mainstream for the nearly 40 years of his career. Couched in the simplicity of his short, even lines and humble melodies are images of bristling strangeness -- ''ice cubes with hair" and lightning that ''burns the sky like alcohol" -- and characters who behave with a random, zigzag humanity.

Saturday night at Symphony Hall, Prine performed a two-hour-plus set that mixed classics from his catalog such as ''Angel From Montgomery" and ''Sam Stone" (''There's a hole in Daddy's arm/ Where all the money goes . . ."), with songs from ''Fair and Square," his upcoming album on Oh Boy Records and his first new material in nine years. In 1998 Prine underwent surgery for cancer in his neck, and his trademark rasp got even raspier. A little shaky in the opening numbers, his voice warmed and stretched as the set developed. Immaculately backed by Jason Wilber on guitar, mandolin, and harmonica, and David Jacques on stand-up and electric bass, Prine was in total command; his between-song patter had the comforting sheen of a well-polished bar rail (''We were up in Canada trying to save our marriage or catch some fish -- whichever came first. . .").

Now and again his simplicity betrays him, especially in the newer material: ''The Glory Of True Love", a song off ''Fair and Square" that he cowrote with Roger Cook, is a number so trite and undemanding that one wonders how it could possibly have taken two people to compose it. But Prine's big, unwieldy heart is his greatest asset. Many of the characters in his songs are struggling with an almost supernatural endowment of love, a goodness that life has not given them the room to express. We are fortunate that he has found a way to express his.

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