Music

Folk singer John Prine makes his Vegas return a memorable one

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John Prine’s voice and recall may have faded, but his ability to transfix an audience remains intact.
Photo: Denise Truscello

Three and a half stars

John Prine December 6, the Pearl.

John Prine, always the storyteller, shared anecdotes of his childhood at his first Las Vegas show in 15 years on Saturday night. “Grandma is the reason I grew up thinking you ought to put sugar on Jell-O,” he said. “I always wanted to grow up to be an old person. Well, voilà.”

The 68-year-old folk singer and revered songwriter debuted his first of 17 studio albums in 1971, and while there’s wear around his edges, he still delivers what his fans love the most: great stories. “This is our last show of the year, and we’ll try and make it as good as we can,” Prine said early in the 30-song, two-hour-and-20-minute performance with his three-piece band.

In 1998, doctors found cancerous tumors on the right side of Prine’s neck, and his voice has sounded more gravelly since they were removed. In late 2013, Prine had surgery to treat lung cancer. He called his own voice “froggy,” and he croaks more than ever, especially when he stretched his vocal range for a rendition of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

Opener Iris Dement, who sang with Prine on four tracks off 1999 album In Spite of Ourselves, lent a hand by accompanying Prine on five songs and the encore. Prine played favorites from his four-decade career, including “Sam Stone,” “Angel From Montgomery,” “Souvenirs” and “Six O’Clock News.”

At times he forgot the words, and would extend the bridge while he plucked the lyrics from his mind. But he has always captivated more with his songwriting than his pipes and presentation. He has a rare quality to tackle serious and touchy subjects—jingoism, race relations, domestic violence—with compassion and insight while still crafting songs you find yourself singing with him and humming on the way home.

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  • As the singer approaches 50, his vocals remain a high point, his mix of throaty growls and raspy screams sounding near-perfect.

  • He’s done acid in Las Vegas, which he calls “a bad life decision.”

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