Before this expertly curated evening was put together its promoter, the mutli-talented instrumentalist and musician, Joe Harvey-Whyte, said the world could be divided into two camps: “those who love John Prine’s music and those who’ve yet to hear him.” And on tonight’s evidence I’d warrant that the number in the former camp probably has a few more converts now.
John Prine’s death back in April due to Covid 19 complications ushered in an extended period of mourning and eulogising because he had the unique quality of managing to touch the hearts and minds of his peers and fans with his brilliant songwriting, was able to blend humour with humanity, vulnerability with pathos – and also give a voice to the often overlooked and marginalised within society.
Hosted in Camden’s Jazz Café which is deserving of high praise for managing to put on a series of music nights in recent months in spite of the serious financial and logistical challenges involved, ‘He Was In Heaven Before He Died’ was a collaborative effort involving a host of different musicians and singers-songwriters – all brought together by a mutual love of John Prine.
Beth Rowley and Josh Flowers kicked the night off in fine style by going back to the start of Prine’s career with ‘Paradise’, in which he recalled past summers spent with his grandparents as a teenager – a composition which has added resonance now because half of his ashes are spread in the Green River referenced in the song. Robert Chaney was to follow, looking remarkably like a young Townes Van Zandt, his rendition of ‘Illegal Smile’, proving to be one of the highlights of an evening notable for many great performances. Equally impressive was Louis Brennan’s version of ‘Sam Stone’. Louis had shown both his songwriting prowess and vocal chops at last year’s collective celebration of the 1975 documentary, ‘Heartworn Highways’ at Wilton’s Music Hall – and his rich baritone, sounding like it’s soaked in molasses, was up to the task of conveying the hurt at the heart of Prine’s classic about a drug-addicted vet.
Patrick Ralla of the Hanging Stars and Angie Gannon from The Magic Numbers formed the second duet of the evening with ‘Souvenirs’. It’s a song that perfectly exemplified Prine’s talent for rueful reflections on the passage of time – profundity mixed with humour and insight, a gorgeous ballad where Prine looks back at snapshots of his life – the perfect sign off from the perfect singer-songwriter. Some particularly fine fingerpicking from Patrick on this number.
What followed was a cover of arguably the most important song released in 2020 with ‘I Remember Everything’. A song which Naomi Larsson introduced as sounding like it was “a goodbye” from Prine – it’s freighted with particular sadness seeing as he presented it to friends and family at a Thanksgiving dinner in 2018 and would have featured on a forthcoming Dave Cobb produced album release had Prine only lived long enough. Naomi Larsson managed to invest this number with great emotion in both her vocal tone and range, while Duncan’s fiddle playing added just the right amount of melancholy, leading to a rapturous audience response.
Following this, Felix Holt managed to subtly convey the gentle humour in the repeated lines of Prine’s ‘If You Don’t Want My Love’, which stood in marked contrast to the heartbreak of Michele Stodart’s version of ‘Hello In There’, a song which not only resonated because of John Prine’s own experience of Covid, but also the extent to which the pandemic has exposed the degree to which older people have been treated as so much collateral damage.
Laura Tenschert dedicated her rendition of ‘Far From Me’ to both John Prine and Justin Townes Earle, seeing as the latter recorded a version of the song himself. Tenschert’s crystalline vocal range did great justice to a number that Prine said was the favourite of all those he’d written. A little bit of light relief followed with Joe Harvey-Whyte saying he felt a bit like Jools Holland given the sheer number of acts he had to invite to the stage, before the final trio of performances – ‘Angel From Montgomery’ by Beth Rowley and Josh Flowers, ‘Summer’s End’ by Angie Gannon and Pat Ralla, and concluding with the madcap humour and warts-and-all celebration of love that is ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ – given great service in a duet by Romeo Stodart and Ren Harvieu.
In a first half comprising 11 songs there were inevitably bound to be some fan favourites that didn’t feature, one obvious omission being ‘Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’, but that’s also a measure of the vast extent of the great John Prine songbook. Act two, which featured the artists’ own compositions, inevitably had a different feel given the unfamiliarity of so much of the material, although there were still some memorable performances, including Pat Ralla’s ‘Black Light Night’, Louis Brennan – again electrifying with ‘Love Island’ – Romeo Stodart with ‘Sweet Forgiveness’ and Naomi Larsson with ‘Drunk Again’. The evening ended with Felix Holt singing ‘Santa Got Stoned’ which morphed into a joyous ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ during its final verse. To finish, there was a lovely ensemble performance of ‘When I Get To Heaven’ – singularly appropriate seeing as this was the last song on the last ever John Prine album.
It’s to Joe Harvey-Whyte’s immense credit and to those of the various performers that the evening was such a success. One of the things that John Prine was renowned for was his modesty, allied to an ability to draw attention to the talent of others, and it was this spirit which prevailed tonight – so I’m sure he would have approved. ‘He Was In Heaven Before He Died’ was a fitting tribute not only to the prowess of John Prine’s songwriting skills but also the ability of music to move us at both the best and the worst of times. There’s a quote from Jack Kerouac that struck me as entirely apposite on conclusion of this evening: “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realise you’re already in heaven now”.