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Smilin', Fishin', Whistlin', Sweatin' and More
By Cary Stemle
Louisville was graced recently by two musical acts that, while certainly off the beaten track, were a big deal to the respective cadres of fans they possess.
John Prine, November 19, at the Macauley Theatre, and Mojo Nixon, November 12, at Phoenix Hill, put on excellent displays for their loyal cults.
Prine said recently in a Morning Edition interview that he had seriously considered hanging it up. Instead, he went back to work and enlisted some music heavyweights (producer Howie Epstein of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt, among them) to help him make the just-released The Missing Years.
Prine may be pushing for a bit more commercial success, and who could blame him. He has toiled in obscurity, largely, it seems, by choice, but partly because his alternately wry and poignant songs don't fit into any category.
What a shame it would have been if Prine had quit playing, because his ability to entertain is undiminished. Playing about half of the Macauley show alone and half with two sidemen on a variety of instruments, Prine led the crowd through the songs they expect -- "Sam Stone," "Illegal Smile," "Fish and Whistle," "Hello In There," and the one he admitted he could never leave without playing, "Paradise."
Prine always mixes old favorites with new material, and there were several songs from The Missing Years, a few of which seem destined to take their place in the John Prine canon. "Picture Show," ostensibly an ode to James Dean, invokes Orville and Wilbur Wright, cheeseburgers, John Garfield and Navajo Indians. "All in three and a half minutes and it rhymes," Prine joked. In "All the Best," Prine wishes his former beloved, begrudgingly, "all the best."
"It's a Big Old Goofy World" is an exercise in simile that includes nearly every cliche in our vocabulary:
Up in the morning, work like a dog
Is better than sitting, like a bump on a
Why it's clear as a bell, I should have
gone to school
I'd be wise as an owl, 'stead of
stubborn as a mule.
Perhaps the best of the new material is "Jesus the Missing Years," a song which came about, Prine said, because no one knows what Jesus did in his teen-age years. "I figured I had as good an idea as anyone," he said.
Prine has always been sardonic and self-aware, but those qualities have become more well-honed as he's gotten older. His recent divorce is on his mind, and finds its way into his new lyrics as well as his stage banter. References to love, bitter and hopeful, abound.
Prine knows how to capsulize the gamut of human emotion in a song, and the longer he goes the more of a treasure he becomes. It's hard to imagine a world without John Prine. Here's hoping we don't have to any time soon.
Mojo Nixon is, as one observer was heard to say, "Certifiable." As in nuts, crazy, insane, perverse, profane and, also, right on. Nixon says things that other people only wish they could.
Introducing "Don Henley Must Die" as a response to "bloated, pompous, serious a--holes," Nixon laid low Henley, who he emphasized is definitely "not from Louisville," and took shots at such icons as Pat Boone, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and Sting. Then came the caveat: "I'm only kidding."
Nixon seems to choose his subject matter right out of the newspaper, or at least the National Enquirer. Nothing and no one are sacred for the Mojo man. Debbie Gibson, Marth Quinn and Michael J. Fox are but a few of the celebrities lampooned. Asked before the show if he had written anything about David Duke, Nixon said, "No, but I'll sure be talking about his a--."
Nixon takes a firmly tongue-in-cheek outlook on just about everything. The closest he came to a ballad was on "Are You Drinking With Me Jesus?," a song he co-wrote with Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers. Montana, who was heard to mention Nixon's wife when his band played Phoenix Hill recently, came in for scorn as well.
"I heard Country Dick's been talkin' about my wife," Nixon yelled. "Just for that, I'm gonna tell her to cut him off."
Nixon has expanded his band to include piano, electric bass and drums. Gone is former sidekick Skid Roper. Nixon proved to be a hot lead guitarist, something that was less apparent before. On stage, Nixon is a mix of high energy, televangelist-like fervor and pure crudeness. Sweat and more was flying as Nixon sprayed the crowd with numerous head shakes and farmer blows.
Audience participation is compulsory, and anyone seen not getting into the happenings may fall subject to public ridicule.
It's safe to say that Phoenix Hill hasn't seen the likes of Mojo Nixon many times before, and it's not likely to again until Nixon returns. Louisville should be ready for him again in about 20 years or so.