The giant backdrop was a perfect setting. The two-hour, 20-song set felt like a laid-back night of heartfelt string music played on the shady banks of the St. Louis River.
Touring behind his 20th studio album, a 2018 release called “The Tree of Forgiveness,” Prine told a couple of stories, showed off a few new songs and mostly delighted the audience with classics from his amazing 50-year music career.
“Sorry it took so long to get up to Duluth but we’re glad we’re here,” said Prine, who last performed at the Head of the Lakes in 2017. The audience was glad too. Prine was greeted with a standing ovation and received multiple shout-outs throughout the night.
Prine and his subtle, stellar four-piece band opened with the sweet, melancholy “Six O’Clock News” a song from his 1971 debut album. The song, a grim tale of 50s family life, features the chorus “Come on baby, spend the night with me.” Pedal steel, harmonica and a grand old stand-up bass provided the haunting musical support.
New songs like “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door” and “Caravan of Fools,” where more upbeat, but sounded like they could’ve been written during his 1970s heyday. Prine introduced a new foot-stomping fiddle tune with a long and funny story. He said “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” was based on a true story from fishing buddy. “I told him: ‘That’s too good. I’m going to have to write a song about it.'”
“Grandpa Was A Carpenter,” a delightful 1975 shuffle, featured new band member Fats Kaplan on fiddle followed by the dark “Hello in There,” anchored by a somber bow on bass from David Jacques. The ability to masterfully execute the two drastically different songs back-to-back illustrated the depth and talent of the backing band.
A two-time cancer survivor, Prine, 72, has a voice that has weathered over the years, but the rough edge suits much of the material he wrote decades ago as a younger man. For example, he ended the classic “Angel of Montgomery” with a long, drawn out and tired “Haaaard way to … go.” The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Prine was joined on stage by opener Todd Snider, who sounds like he could be a son. Both playing acoustic guitars, a funny highlight of the night was “In Spite of Ourselves,” where Snider sang the female part of a husband and wife duet.
After “Sam Stone,” a gripping song of addiction, the set ended with the joyful, rollicking “Lake Marie,” as Prine, 72, set his guitar on the floor, danced around it and continued his dance off stage.
The band encored with “Paradise,” perhaps Prine’s best known song, a lament of American life lost to big business. A historic black and white photo of the Paradise, Kentucky Post Office — hauled off my Mr. Peabody’s coal train decades ago — replaced the live oak tree backdrop.
Snider, who said he met Prine on the road 30 years ago, opened the show with an engaging solo set. The singer-songwriter shared the stage with a sleepy dog and performed quirky, often funny, story songs about taco stand parking lots, jailhouse phone calls and buying beer. His final song was a satirical slapshot at the political right.
Mark Nicklawske is a Duluth freelance writer who reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.