John Prine, The Belly Up Aspen, 3/23/11
By Ryan Lappi
I like to think that seeing John Prine in a venue as intimate as the Belly Up in Aspen, Colorado, is a bit like walking back in time. The singer/songwriter is no stranger to Colorado. Back in the 1970’s he frequently played the now defunct Tulagi in Boulder. These days it’s rare to see Prine in such a small setting, but the Belly Up is one of those few venues that offers, for a price best reserved for special occasions, studio quality acoustics and a close up view from any seat of some of the country’s major touring acts. Luckily, this was a special occasion, so I skipped both of his sold-out Boulder and Denver performances ( and, unfortunately, his collaborations with opening act Sarah Jarosz, who didn’t play Aspen) for the opportunity.
Admittedly, I have a bit of a soft spot for Aspen. I knew this about five minutes after arriving in town, when I crossed paths with a wild haired granny wearing a full length fur coat (I was guessing a mix between mink and aardvark) and tight black leather pants tucked into some high-end offshoot of the Ugg. This was a species of human I had never encountered before, and she was only the first in a long parade of surreal, often anachronistic personalities that I would discover cohabiting this celebrity oasis.
The patrons of the Belly Up represented a cross section of misfits similar to those seen in town, yet perhaps not as flashy as some of the Prada-clad specimens outside. This was, after all, a John Prine show. But there was a fine assortment of fringe characters, racoon-eyed skiers, well-to-do former hippies, extremely attractive yet (judging from their knee high leather boots and somewhat formidable muscular boyfriends) untouchable females, the great John Oates, and some friendly retirees, most notably the former Pitkin County Sheriff, Bob Braudis, who sat right behind me. Interestingly enough, I had just finished reading Douglas Brinkley’s retrospective of Braudis’ colorful career, which included a long friendship with Hunter S. Thompson, investigations of high profile murders that even included a drug cartel hit, Charlie Sheen’s 2009 domestic violence dispute and, most notably, a soft stance on drugs and a well-known aversion to collaborating in undercover D.E.A. operations. Needless to say, he was a popular sheriff and a towering figure in the crowd, with an ecstatic, ski-bum smile to boot.
Prine took the stage promptly at 9:00 p.m., beginning the set with, predictably, one of his most famous anthems, “Spanish Pipedream,” a friendly introduction to a roughly 25 song, two-and-a-half hour emotional roller coaster of wit and wisdom. As with any Prine show, one can expect to laugh and cry with ease – even in a single song – as he surveys four decades of American history through the lens of some of folk music’s most memorable characters. “Sam Stone,” the down and out war veteran, was in the house, along with “Dear Abby,” “Donald and Lydia,” and a ever-lonesome “Angel From Montgomery.” Supporting this cast was guitarist Jason Wilbur (who opened the show) and stand-up and electric bassist, Dave Jacques, both of whom provided mostly sparing stylings to accentuate the moods of each song, although they certainly weren’t afraid to let loose on the more high octane numbers like “Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody” and the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek.”
Prine is, of course, a master craftsman of sentiment, able to deliver stinging blows to America’s self image (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / and Jesus died for nothing, I suppose“) while simultaneously celebrating the country’s idiosyncracies, underground traditions, and rites of passage on both the individual and cultural level. His characters instantly breathe life, radiate humor, and suffer. Most importantly, they are sifted through the voice of an artist that one cannot help but trust. Prine has never been one for glamor. He’s never basked in his fame. He doesn’t even seem altogether comfortable in the spotlight. One can’t help but giggle at his weather-worn demeanor, his squinting eyes, puffy cheeks, western style of clothing, and that “Illegal Smile” permeating his face as he anticipated the crowd’s reaction to every turn of phrase and emotional blow. Yet, at 64, he’s one of those rare artists whose voice embodies so many categories of middle America, and it gains more grit and personality with each passing year. Underlying every song is an antique tenderness that only becomes more endearing with age, a voice with the sheen and contours of a classic Plymouth chugging along with a broken muffler toward another hazy sunset, whistling at all the roadside attractions along the way.
And the poetry flowed swift and deep. “Six O’Clock News,” “Far From Me,” “Souvenirs,” and “Hello in There” tugged, plucked, and clawed against the heart strings. “Fish and Whistle,” “That’s the Way that the World Goes Round,” (with an interlude describing how a fan once mistook the line “it’s a half an inch of water, you think you’re gonna drown” for “it’s a happy enchilada, you think you’re gonna drown”), and “Bottomless Lake” evoked hearty laughter in the face of some poignant, even cynical, lyrics. The lighthearted “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and “The Glory of True Love” sent smiles beaming across the room.
Scattered throughout the music were many road-tested anecdotes, including one about a stint in the Army, which included time in Leesville, Louisiana (or, as he called it, “Disease-ville”) and also Libya. A few songs into the set, he acknowledged that “a lot of the lead characters in my songs get killed off. Kind of makes it hard to do sequels. If only I had known what was coming.” The noticeably polite crowd (yet another perk of the Belly Up) hung on to every word, quiet as a group of witnesses who had collectively experienced some horrendous accident, yet festive enough to celebrate the news that someone was still alive to tell their story.
If any song achieved the difficult task of simultaneously invoking poignancy, love, humor and hope, it was “Lake Marie,” a story that eerily bridges the disparate narratives of the eponymous origins of the Twin Lakes, a failing marriage (“We found ourselves in Canada / trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish / whatever seemed easier“), and a gruesome murder (“You know what blood looks like in black and white video? Shadows“) against the backdrop of the indifferent “peaceful waters” of Lake Marie. Here I thought of the old sheriff right behind me, and some of the more gruesome crime scenes that Brinkley had described in his profile, the occasional manhunts or wreckages of plane crashes that Braudis had experienced in his 25 years on the job.
That contrast between human depravity and the natural world is a common theme in Prine’s songs, and it came as little surprise when he ended the show with “Paradise,” the ode to his childhood stomping grounds in western Kentucky and the subsequent destruction of the land by a coal baron. Looking around the room, I wondered if Aspen had suffered a similar fate, its pristine mountains and outlaw culture chipped away piece by piece by the dull knife of commerce. It was certainly another world, but inside the Belly Up it felt like there was still a lot of love out there for our vanishing national treasures. But how could it not? We were face to face with one of them, a certified diamond in the rough.