By Maisie Sheidlower
Everything about the first five minutes of the House of Strombo performance, streamed on CBC music, made clear that it was recorded at a time before now. Quick shots to the stand-up bassist’s hands revealed them to be gloveless. Pans to the grinning faces of the audience revealed them to be maskless. Wider shots of the venue staff revealed them to be flirtily nudging each other — partaking in the physical contact many of us have been deprived of for so long now. And, in the center of it all, John Prine, who as of this week is another privilege Corona has dictated we must go without.
The legendary singer-songwriter opened his 2018 concert with Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone), which eased the already relaxed concertgoers into gentle laughter. Prine interspersed his lyrics with snarky asides muttered just to the left of the microphone, giving the effect that he was speaking directly to you. Details like these contributed to his audience’s rapture, few in the crowd taking their eyes off the folk singer for the duration of the 45-minute event.
Most notably enthralled was fellow folk legend Gordon Lightfoot, who Prine acknowledged as his “songwriting hero,” making the Canadian guitarist credited with defining the pop-folk sound of the 1960s and ‘70s grin modestly and move his hand to his face.
Prine introduced each song by offering a brief story elaborating on the songwriting process, often with hawiaan shirt-clad host George Stroumboulopoulos prodding for more details. This and all ‘House of Strombo’ concerts are recorded in the Toronto home of the award-winning television and radio interviewer, writer, director, actor and producer.
Transitioning into Far From Me, a breakup song, Prine strummed his acoustic guitar with a similar rhythmic consistency as he had for Egg & Daughter, but his backup electric guitarist played quietly — and now more emotively — holding each chord longer, and making it tremble slightly. At the end of the song, the audience’s applause was more reserved, as the camera panned to a woman wiping tears from her eyes.
His voice gravelly and low, Prine prefaced Speed of the Sound of Loneliness with a brief introduction. (My research assistant, who could hear the video from the living room, made sure I knew that this was the result of squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck, and that dinner would be ready in an hour.) The song was sung in a comforting two-part harmony between Prine and guitarist Jason Wilber, who Prine said “Knows more stuff than I do.”
For Sam Stone, bassist Dave Jakes changed to a bow, giving a more dramatic, stirring effect. The bass was used sparingly. When it came in, it was weighty and poignant. Here, Prine punctuated some of his lines with a spoken word or phrase, opting not to push his voice.
But then came Summer’s End, a love song addressed to “you.” In this heart-wrenching ballad, Prine stretched his crackled voice to reach all the notes in this more nuanced number, giving the effect that everything — the lyrics, the notes, his voice — was a plea, begging the subject to “come on home.” Prine’s eyes, previously wandering around the room, now peered to the floor. Each request he made of his love seemed accompanied by an actual sense of urgency, but his consoling guitar playing meant that it never crossed the boundary into badgering.
After the last chord, Prine confided, “there were always some songs I could sing and some songs I couldn’t.” This comment was incomprehensible to me, and I found myself wishing that he could wipe those words from his lips. I then realized that, should he literally do so now, he would have to wash his hands for at least 20 seconds, lathering them by rubbing them together with soap, and tending to the backs of hands, between his fingers, under his nails, and his wrists, before rinsing them well under clean, running water. However, I found solace in the fact that he would have done Happy Birthday great justice — twice.