By Ron Fassler
Not only was I new to the talents of singer Marissa Mulder, who gave a fine concert at the Birdland Theater last night, but I was also somewhat ignorant of the fifty-year career of John Prine. A songwriter of great range and tender abilities, Prine died at age seventy-three of Covid-19 eighteen months ago at the beginning of the pandemic. I read his obituaries with sadness, especially as he was still performing and recording; the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award just two months prior to his death. His passing was a loss for music lovers the world over, covered by such icons (among others) as Johnny Cash, Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt, in addition to numerous recordings of his own. And with Mulder’s entire set devoted to Prine, her telling of his story between songs illuminated the material, creating an instructive and charming evening of music.
Mulder is a natural conduit to channel Prine’s songs, with her sunny optimism used to good effect in the opener, “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.” Her sweet disposition worked perfectly in grave counterpoint to the song’s lyrics:
I know a guy that’s got a lot to lose
He’s a pretty nice fellow, kinda confused.
Got muscles in his head, ain’t never been used.
Thinks he own half of this town.
Starts drinking heavy, gets a big red nose
Beats his old lady with a rubber hose.
Then he takes her out to dinner, buys her new clothes
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
Mulder’s effortless ease with this made my ears perk up when the sadness crept through. Throughout an evening comprised of ballads, up tempos and iterations of folk songs of every stripe, Mulder’s girlish voice was a flawless fit of ironic compliment to Prine’s poetry. As she reminded us in the telling of the backstory of Prine’s long career, he was always seeking truth in his writing and finding common ground with anyone who crossed his path.
While working odd jobs in his youth, particularly one long stint as a mailman, Prine enjoyed composing in his head while walking the streets of suburban Chicago neighborhoods. This is how he wrote “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” (with a then-Vietnam War era condemnation of not only the war, but Jesus himself). Prine wasn’t afraid to go to those places, and even when a hero of his such as Johnny Cash wished to record this song and told him he had to change the Jesus reference, Prine knew which side of the bread had to be buttered. Out went Jesus.
But perhaps the most evocative song Mulder gave us was her rendition of “Sam Stone,” written when Prine was just twenty-two. Also composed while delivering the mail, Prine delivered a stinging indictment of veterans who returned home with drug addiction and PTSD (something he knew from personal experience).
Can you find a more painful line in any sixties protest song than “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes?”
Ably backed by pianist and musical director Jon Weber and guitarist Mike Rosengarten (who joined her on the encore), Marissa Mulder provided a very winning, very genuine way with words and music (particularly that of a master songwriter such as John Prine). When she brings back this show, which I imagine she most assuredly will, a 75-minute journey like this belongs on your schedule.
Marissa Mulder’s Souvenirs,The Songs of John Pine, was at the Birdland Theater, 315 W 44th Street, NYC, October 3rd, 2021.