Legendary songwriter infuses protest with humor, beauty with heartbreak

“I wrote this song in 1968,” John Prine told the crowd a few songs into his two-hour set at the Ohio Theatre. “I was only three years old.”

It was one of many jokes Prine set up and delivered with a stand-up comic’s timing on Friday night, whether in between songs or in the middle of one. The Illinois-born songwriter, about two weeks shy of his 72nd birthday, can work humor into just about any topic — even that overtly political protest song from ’68. “We had a real jerk in the White House then,” Prine said. “What a coincidence.”

After the setup, Prine led his band in a rendition of the tragically timeless “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” in which the protagonist puts so many flag stickers on his car that he can't see out the windshield, so he crashes into a tree and dies. “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore/They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war,” Prine sang, his voice scratched and scraped from two bouts of cancer and decades of touring.

Prine is the quintessential codger — at turns mischievous, hilarious and a little dirty, but still sincere and sentimental enough to break your heart with a simple turn of phrase.

Dressed in a black suit, Prine stuck to acoustic guitar the whole night, flanked by electric guitarist Jason Wilber, bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Kenneth Blevins and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, a tuxedo-clad standout who wowed the crowd on pedal steel, mandolin, violin and guitar. Prine and his band performed every song on excellent new album Tree of Forgiveness, plus plenty of old favorites.

The night’s biggest sing-alongs came midway through the set, when the band left the stage and Prine brought out some of his best-known songs: “Illegal Smile,” “Dear Abby,” “Sam Stone” and a duet with opener Lily Hiatt for “In Spite of Ourselves.” Prine also treated the crowd to a song he doesn’t sing much — “Linda Goes to Mars,” which he dedicated to the memory of the song’s namesake, who lived in Columbus. The stripped-down portion of the evening was a testament to what’s possible with three chords and a sharp wit.

This September show was originally scheduled for March. “I apologize,” Prine said. “I needed a new knee.” The new joint seemed to be treating him just fine, especially on the last song before the encore, “Lake Marie,” from 1995 album Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings. It’s a song that stretches to eight minutes or so in a live setting as Prine plays the role of beat-poet storyteller, starting with the legend of how the Twin Lakes on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Lake Elizabeth and Lake Marie, got their names. The chorus repeats in four-part harmony: “We were standing/Standing by peaceful waters.”

The second verse pivots to Prine meeting his wife; she stands with her back turned to Lake Marie, grilling Italian sausages, wind blowing in her hair. “Many years later we found ourselves in Canada trying to save our marriage/And perhaps catch a few fish/Whatever seemed easier,” Prine said.

But it’s the third verse that you never see coming. Next to those peaceful waters, the police find two naked bodies, their faces horribly disfigured. Prine watches it on the news, and the blood looks like shadows. It’s a veiled reference to the John Wayne Gacy murders. Something dark and sinister discolored his memory of Lake Marie, and his marriage seemed to fall victim to similar forces. “All the love we shared between her and me was slammed/Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie, Marie,” he said, and then launched into the final chorus, repeating it like a mantra.

“We were standing,” Prine sang on the Ohio Theatre stage, his feet beginning to shuffle, his shoulders shrugging in time. “Standing by peaceful waters.” The guitar became a distraction, so he set it on the stage, flicking his fingers at it as if smoke and flames were engulfing it. He let his body do what it pleased, breaking into a weird, wonderful jig. Then he danced himself off the stage while the band played on.