Twelve. Twelve acts performed as part of the second annual John Prine tribute show. Fourteen were actually scheduled, but two had to cancel at the last minute. Performers ranged from small acoustic duos or trios to sprawling combos. Some of the performers were established acts, and some were collaborations created specifically for the night. There were folk artists, country ensembles, and even a punk band on the bill. Some took liberties with John Prine's music, while others remained reverent. In short, it was a long night where the vastness of Kansas City's music scene gathered to pay homage to a man whose long career as both a songwriter and performer touched every musical corner. I'll try to describe the night for posterity despite the enormity. Hopefully I can catch the flow without resorting to basic recounting.
The night began with Kristin Hamilton and a solo trip through "Blue Umbrella." She has a classic country voice with a comforting Appalachian warble. Her daughter Lucy Gray joined her for the second song, providing violin and some glorious blood harmonies. Scott Stanton and his guitar joined by the third, before ultimately concluding with a duet of "Unwed Fathers" where the lopsided voices of Hamilton and Stanton traded verses just as John Prine and then-wife Rachel Peer-Prine did in 1984.
The night hurried along with Havilah and Kris Bruders. Many may know Kris Bruders as half of the gothic blues duo Freight Train Rabbit Killer. With guitar in hand and his wife Havilah singing harmonies by his side, Bruders hobbled through an honest "Christmas in Prison" and "That's the Way the World goes Round." Prine's originals were sparse affairs, the Bruders' versions even more raw.
The Record Bar was packed. Without taking a poll, I'd say a lot of the patrons were friends, family, or coworkers of one performer or another. Unfortunately, these revelers weren't always interested in the happenings on stage when it wasn't someone they recognized. Their conversations often overpowered the acoustic acts that began the evening. It's possible this was the loudest crowd I'd ever encountered at a show.
Darren Matheson was up next. Matheson has popped up in a number of alt-country projects through the decades, although according to Matheson this was his first time on a stage in six years. As he adjusted the capo on his acoustic guitar, he noted that he was supposed to have a guitar player on stage with him. Eventually he was joined by Dane Talley on electric guitar, who offered twangy leads pulled over Matheson's acoustic. The rough set included a rollicking version of "Spanish Pipedream."
Arthur Dodge is a local statesman of sorts. I first saw him perform 25 years ago, when he was playing a set of Americana and heartland rock that felt like home. On this night he offered four somber songs – some that were written that way, others (like "Somewhere Someone's Falling in Love") rearranged to fit the mood. The entire set featured Dodge's lovely fingerpicking and his gruff but reserved voice. While neither consistently rose above the audience's chatter, by the end he was able to redirect the crowd's energy into hand claps that kept time.
Between acts I studied the noisy audience. There were more folks in their 70s than kids in their 20s. Late 40s seemed to be the mean. Prairie dresses and worn jeans. Cowboy hats and tired boots. Lots of longhaired men that looked like they had been trouble until tamed by time. Lots of ladies who still shot their bourbon straight when the mood struck. I bet this is what a Wilco show looks like.
A trio calling themselves Dead End Friends hit the stage next for two songs. Kevin Pavelka playing acoustic and singing, Rob Cashman on electric bass, and Sean McElderry blowing harmonica. The first outing for this trio, but Pavelka told me there may be more – possibly under a different name. That'd be good, as I was too busy trying to get pictures of the band to actually hear what was going on.
Next up was a centerstage performance from Dale Talley. Our tardy guitarist from several sets ago returned, but this time with an acoustic guitar and microphone. He started his set with a long introduction, but the audience drowned him out. His first number featured show-organizer Heather Villines who provided excellent harmony parts over Prine's folk. Villines would guest on a number of songs later in the night, joking that she only organized the tribute in order to perform with her favorite musicians. For the remainder of the short set Talley didn’t radically change Prine's songs, but he definitely made them feel mischievous. I suspect both Prine and Talley did their share of bad things never intending any harm. I make no such guarantees about the night's next act.
Wayne Pain and the Shit Stains are a lo-fi, drug-fueled, garage punk trio led by Kenneth Kupfer, with Brett Livingston on drums and Louis Manendez on bass. If portions of the audience looked like they used to be trouble, Kupfer and his crew have picked up the mantle. The band brought Villines up for the first track – a noisy duet of "In Spite of Ourselves." The second and final number was a cover of 2005's "She Is My Everything." This late-era (post-throat surgery) Prine song is well-suited for the power chords and whoopin' that the threesome gave it. The audience liked what they heard.
Lou and the Knock 'Em Backs share a several members of Wayne Pain, and most of the attitude. Frontman, acoustic guitarist, and vocalist Lou is Louis Manendez and the Knock 'Em Backs are a group of shitkickers in cowboy hats featuring the electric guitar of Charlie Vellejo, the bass of Scott Hinkle, Kenneth Kupfer on drums, and especially Peggy Kinder on vocals. Vellejo provided some of the best twangy guitar of the night, Kinder and Manendez melded perfectly, and when Kinder struck out for some big notes on her own during "Angel from Montgomery," it got me hooting right along with the rest of the audience.
Before their performance, Shapiro Brothers asked the audience for a moment of silence for John Prine – it didn't happen, so the attempt stretched on and on. Eventually Mikal Shapiro settled for the crowd's minimal effort as Chad Brothers offered that the room had at least gotten "Kansas City silent." Unable to beat them, Shapiro turned up her own gift of gab, explaining that the night was a benefit for Kansas City Folk Festival – an all-day free festival scheduled for May 20th at Washington Square Park in downtown Kansas City. Then it was time for music.
I'd seen the name "Shapiro Brothers" on flyers for years, and always assumed it was either a reference to the New York Mobsters or some fortunately-named sibling assemblage. It wasn't until this show I understood the act was a duo comprised of guitarists Mikal Shapiro and Chad Brothers. Talk about late to the party. The twosome's four or five song set included a visit with the political "Some Humans Ain't Human" from Prine's late period, another version of "In Spite Of Ourselves" (I think the only song that was duplicated in the night), and a memorable bouncing version of 1991's "You Got Gold" sung by Brothers. The duo's guitars played together nicely, with Brothers dropping nice leads over Shapiro's foundation.
The highlight of the night came from Red Irons – a newish conglomeration of established artists fronted by vocalist/guitar Greg Wickham and built around lead guitarist Dan Mesh, bassist Tim Huggins, and drummer Cole Harvey. The band's version of "Picture Show" brought out the jangle in the track (originally recorded with Tom Petty and members of The Heartbreakers), that bested the original. The band also delivered a fantastic rearrangement of Prine's 1978 story-song "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)" that included several jaw-dropping solos from Mesh.
Between acts, the audience really started to thin. Who could blame them, it was after 11:00 and ten acts had already performed. Thankfully it was mostly the revelers who left, quieting the room substantially.
Americana mainstays Fred Wickham Caravan were up next for a handful of songs from Prine's middle period. The six-piece lines up as Fred Wickham on vocals/guitar, Marco Pascolini on guitar, Lin Buck on keys, Richard Burgess on bass, Matt Brahl on drums, and Fred Wickham Jr. on mandolin. The band started with "Maureen, Maureen" and continued through a set that recast both Prince and the act as a bluesy bar band. Or maybe it was just late and the room was feeling no pain.
A.M. Merker & Friends were the perfect cap for the evening. The eight-piece band continued the work started by Fred Wickham, completing the transformation of The Record Bar into a roadhouse replete with twirling dancers and scootin' boots. The band's set teetered on country, especially the first song that again featured Heather Villines. But as Villines departed for the wings, and backup singers Melissa Geffert and Sarah Wittman stepped forward, the big band transformed into a country rock powerhouse a la Gram Parsons or the Stones' early '70s output. A.M. Merker leads the band, providing vocals and acoustic guitar, pedal steel came from Colm Chomicky (aka KC Steeler), fiddle from Mallory Edson, drums from Jacob Jorpinjuk, and bass from Brent Nohl. Merker promised only one sad one, but the whole set was soaked with honky-tonk including the band's lengthy take of 1972's "Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You." The night ended sometime after midnight with a finale that featured hoots, hollers, choreographed dance moves, and an audience full of kazoo players asked to join in.
By the end, the night had featured twelve acts and over four hours of music, but hot damn, I was ready to do it again.
Afterword: It was with some novelty that I walked into Record Bar on Friday night without a mask. It was the first time I entered any building barefaced in over three years. But two weeks ago, I contracted COVID, and science tells me that I've now got a window of immunity. That's nice, but the irony of my brush with COVID hit me as I made my way through the crowded club there to celebrate the life and music of John Prine. Let's not forget that it was complications from COVID-19 that took Prine's life on April 7th, 2020.