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John Prine honors friends with heart, humor at Ruth Eckerd Hall

In a semi-hometown show in Clearwater, the songwriting legend made the whole house feel alive. | Concert review

It didn’t take long for John Prine to reference his local ties on Saturday night at Ruth Eckerd Hall. It just didn’t happen the way fans expected.

It came during Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, which he dedicated to his former longtime guitarist Philip Donnelly, an Irishman who lived for a while in St. Pete Beach, near Prine’s part-time home of Gulfport. Donnelly died on Thanksgiving. When Prine told the crowd, there were a few audible gasps.

Every local John Prine show feels like a special kind of homecoming, and this was no different. It was the first since Prine released last year’s The Tree of Forgiveness, his first new album since 2005. And Prine had plenty of friends among the sold-out crowd of 1,952.

“Glad you guys are living,” he told a few of them.

Time is passing, and no one knows that better than Prine, 73, a two-time cancer survivor who wears his scars proudly — his chin hangs low from a mid-'90s surgery that cost him part of the right side of his neck. Donnelly wasn’t the only fallen friend he honored Saturday; he also dedicated Souvenirs to Johnny Green, a veteran promoter and Tierra Verde resident who died in 2018.

RELATED: Epilogue: Johnny Green, a living rock 'n' roll Rolodex

The whole night could have been a mournful downer. Prine always was one of those powerfully poetic New Dylans, a guy whose career started with the devastating Sam Stone: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” Yeah, he played that Saturday, and yeah, it hurt the heart.

But since The Tree of Forgiveness, Prine’s been playing — and living — with a little extra purpose. And that’s the part that showed the most on Saturday.

Ambling out to the spirited Crooked Piece of Time, Prine strummed his acoustics with heart and much more enthusiasm than one might expect from his low, doleful baritone. Grandpa Was a Carpenter was a lively bit of campfire folk that saw Prine stepping out to the lip of the stage, gesturing at friends and fans in the front rows.

The imagery of Prine’s best songs still have the power to hurl you right into the plot, from Hello In There (“We lost Davey in the Korean War / I still don’t know what for / It don’t matter anymore”) to the country-to-the-core Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow) (“I’ve been brought down to zero, pulled out and put back there / I sat on a park bench, kissed the girl with the black hair / And my head shouted out to my heart / ‘You better look out below!’"). As soon as he started plucking out the all-time classic Angel From Montgomery (“To believe in this living is just a hard way to go”), a lot of fans were caught between wanting to clap and sing along, and wanting to sit in awed reverence.

John Prine, left, and pedal steel player Fats Kaplin perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019.
John Prine, left, and pedal steel player Fats Kaplin perform at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Things felt especially lively on newer songs from The Tree of Forgiveness. The fishing story Prine told to set up Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone) was almost as endearing as the hilarious hoot of a tune that followed. Caravan of Fools, “a song about the current administration,” swelled with foreboding and “gypsy fiddling” courtesy of Fats Kaplin. And I Have Met My Love Today brought delightful work from Kaplin and Jason Wilber, their guitars intertwined in a melodic Tex-Mex tango.

“It’s a young record, and it just took off," Prine said of the album. "This old man is chasing it down the street.”

Prine was a quip machine all night. When fans started shouting out requests, he said: "I know 'em all. I know the guy who wrote 'em.”

When fans started whooping and hollering between songs: "Thanks for your yelps. You make me feel right at home. That’s what we do at the dinner table.”

On the sweet love song In Spite of Ourselves. “A lot of people are using this song for weddings these days. I don’t know how well it’s working. They use Please Don’t Bury Me for funerals, so I got you on both ends. I got you covered.”

And when a fan shouted “I love you!” Prine said he loved them back.

“When you get to be my age,” he said, “you tell everybody you love them.”

His age? Did people see the way he jigged around his guitar at the end of the sweet, nostalgic American epic Lake Marie, dancing all the way off stage? Did they notice how brightly he scatted alongside a kazoo on the winking When I Get to Heaven? Did they see how happy he seemed to bring opener Kelsey Waldon, his wife Fiona and guest Jimmie Fadden of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band out to close the show with the rousing Paradise?

Kelsey Waldon opens for John Prine at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019.
Kelsey Waldon opens for John Prine at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 7, 2019. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Waldon, who’s signed to Prine’s label, opened the show with a set of steely Americana performed with clear-eyed reserve. The flinty resilience of High in Heels, Anyhow and All By Myself put her Appalachian twang front and center, like Tammy or Loretta; sparser songs like The Heartbreak left plenty of room for the lonely to let their hearts roam about.

When she sang Very Old Barton, she mentioned that during a recent bourbon sampling with her mentor, Prine decided that Bardstown, Ky. label was his favorite. On a night when he could hang his hat by his own bed if he wanted, here’s hoping he had a bottle in stock. There are a few local friends he’d probably like to toast.