sure, John Prine's label, Oh Boy Records in Nashville, may have a Website promoting his latest release, "Live on Tour" -- you've got to mind the store, after all -- but I'd be surprised to discover that Prine himself had anything to do with it. After all, one of the central pleasures of a live John Prine performance is the respite it provides from the persistent, quick hum of technology in the '90s. While the songs on the album were recorded at several performances all over the country, they sound like some of the friendliest down-home folks around. There's fishin' poles and fence posts, historical Jesus, truck wheels on an icy road at night; monkeys in outer space, insanely loud car commercials and the ephemeral human heart. And here they all come together like old neighbors at a barbecue.
Prine is in no imminent danger of becoming the Fourth Tenor -- his dust-bowl voice is still a relaxed, homegrown combination of Illinois, Kentucky and 30 years of road work. It may not appeal to everyone, but it's a highly expressive instrument, alternately dripping with sly humor and great tenderness. It's hard to hear him singing on "Live on Tour" and imagine that any other voice could do justice to his material -- despite the fact that with their classic Prine covers, several more "polished" singers like Bonnie Raitt ("Angel From Montgomery") and Bette Midler ("Hello in There") already have. It's also hard to hear him sing live and not want to sing along with him, as the audience merrily does on the chorus to "Illegal Smile" ("It don't cost very much/But it lasts a long while").
"Live on Tour" tastefully avoids the Greatest Hits trap that often makes concert albums an optional buy. Of the 12 live cuts, seven are from Prine's last two studio discs; four are from much earlier in his book; and one, "Space Monkey," is previously unreleased. Aside from a few solo turns, backup musicians range from the full, electrified Lost Dogs Band to smaller configurations that feature an upright bass, accordion and percussion.
If you're in any kind of hurry, you might grow impatient with "Live on Tour." Good-natured and laid back, the music takes its sweet time (not that any of the songs are actually that long -- most of them clock in at under five minutes). Somehow, though, as Prine's uniquely original stories and observations slowly unwind, time fades away like humid air over a Southern blacktop. And in this hectic world where even John Prine can be found on the Information Superhighway, a disc like "Live on Tour" may be just the thing to calm you down.