There were more grey beards than ballcaps staring at the Holy Heart stage around 9 p.m. Saturday night, but they were restless nonetheless.
The full house applauded and cheered fiddle player Carrie Rodriguez, a Texas girl who gave us a shiver of Lucinda Williams, without the extra bourbon. She could fill a theatre here in her own name now, that's how good she is, but Saturday belonged to the legend. ... And the crowd was ready.
It's no secret St. John's appreciates its folk music, and the ovation - the standing, roaring ovation that greeted John Prine as he walked across the stage proved it doesn't have to be Irish to be loved.
Prine started with the familiar, a tune from his self-titled debut that had the crowd whispering along, itching to sing the songs they love, but holding back to give the master his due. That would change, but for now, everyone hung on his words.
"I told you I'd come back," he said after "Picture Show," "so I came on back." There is a lot of the old south in John Prine's drawl, which might belie his Illinois birth, but matches what we believe we know of his life and music.
A live show promises much more than a recording can ever offer. We see how artists handle their music, how they have settled into songs written years or even decades earlier, how those songs have settled around them. From the best performers, we also get the stories to fill in the blanks our imaginations have not been able to cover.
Prine provided all that, too, with self-depreciating humour and sometimes dry wit, speaking about composing "Souvenirs" with "the same three chords I always use," or how 1978's "Fish and Whistle" was written to be the worst thing a producer had ever heard.
"After I sang it a couple of hundred times, I started to like it."
Fact or fable? That doesn't matter. We love a good story, and whether it is truth or fiction is secondary.
And it is John Prine's stories that fill the halls. At 62, his voice wavers a little from time to time, the frog creeping into his throat. But it fits, as if these songs were written for this time in his life. It might be hard to think of 20-something Prine introducing us to the "Angel of Montgomery," but today we know she is an old friend.
Prine's poetry can take much of the credit for drawing us into those stories. Few have turned a phrase with his kind of beauty, and those words have imbedded themselves into a million psyches, and more.
Guitar player Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques (say "Jakes") left the stage for a solo rendition of "Christmas in Prison" and "Bruised Orange."
And then "Illegal Smile," when we were given our voice, the audience welcoming the invitation to sing the way they do with the radio, or their recordings, claiming Prine's stories for their own.
The sidemen returned for "Sam Stone," first Jacques bowing the lowest notes on his standup bass, then Wilber's sad slide. Prine strapped on an electric for some country blues, his own version of "Bear Creek," and then "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody." Then back to the acoustic for "Hello in There," and he closed the show with "Lake Marie," a spoken-word piece from 1995's "Mixed Blessings."
And the crowd stood to cheer him back, reluctant to stop even as he returned for three more tunes.
Prine played another sold-out show Sunday night, wrapping up a sold-out tour of Atlantic Canada.
Ken Simmons is The Telegram's features editor
John Prine played a single, two-hour set Saturday night, with a short break before a three-song encore. Joining him then were Carrie Rodriguez, who opened the show, and Luke Jacobs, a pedal-steel player who accompanied Rodriguez during her set.
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Please Don't Bury Me
Far From Me
Fish and Whistle
Glory of True Love
I Wish You Love
Angel From Montgomery
Christmas in Prison
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Saddle in the Rain
Ain't Hurtin' Nobody
Hello In There
Encore (with Carrie Rodriguez)
In Spite of Ourselves