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From the Country Standard Time Archives

John Prine dishes out a happy enchilada

Cerritos, Cal., Oct. 17, 2003

By Dan MacIntosh

CERRITOS, CA - Even with John Prine's firmly established credentials as one of America's best songwriters, his show tonight didn't start off all too promisingly. The sound was muddled, and Prine's cracked voice was not nearly in game-ready shape. But the artist's winning sense of humor and strikingly diverse set list of songs eventually gave him the necessary momentum to pull off one fine show. And after a satisfying 2 1/2 hours of music, one would have been hard-pressed to find any disappointed fans heading toward the exits.

Prine did play a few new songs - such as "Just Getting By," which poked fun at the president's daughter - yet many of his older works still stood up particularly well. For example, "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven," back from many albums and a few wars ago, could have just as easily been written during this country's current post-9/11 patriotic wave. Don't expect Toby Keith to mouth its cynical words anytime soon, however. Prine's best work has always been more personal than political, and while it's not hard to guess when a song like "Sam Stone" was written, the listener is more moved by this character's deep pain, than concerned with the historical era he might have lived in.

About half way through, Prine shed his accompanying bass player and guitarist, and at the same time, he also set aside some of his serious demeanor for a moment. It was during this acoustic guitar accompanied segment that he performed the Peter Case co-penned "Space Monkey," for example. The song hilariously looks at Russia through the eyes of a monkey sent into space during communism that returns to a very different post-USSR world.

Prine's silly side was also revealed on the sexually explicit, yet somehow still inoffensive, "In Spite of Ourselves." He also told a great story about how an audience member once mistook one song line containing the words, "half an inch of water" for "a happy enchilada."

By the end of the night, Prine's scratchy voice was all but forgotten. Instead, his brilliant lyrical couplets - far too many to mention - were all running through the mind. This made it impossible to leave one's seat not feeling like a satisfied and happy enchilada.

Chris Smither (who later returned for one of Prine's encores) opened with a criminally short set. His New Orleans-soaked "No Love Today" and his cover of Dave Carter's "Crocodile Man" were so wonderfully performed through Smither's bluesy voice and finger-picked guitar, this quite impressed crowed had him return one more time to play "Love Me Like A Man." Whereas Prine made the audience feel like a plate of happy enchiladas, when Smither left the stage, this audience was one great big bowl of grinning gumbo.