John Prine took a little time out of his sold-out performance at the Birchmere Tuesday night to pay tribute to the late singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who "could write a goofy song, then turn around and break your heart." Prine, too, possesses that same rare gift for contrasting ludicrous scenarios with poignant vignettes, sometimes within the same song.
After recuperating from a bout with cancer that prevented him from touring for nearly two years, Prine has returned to the road in fine form, his gravelly voice and sharp wit intact. With help from his current tour mate, singer Iris DeMent, he spent part of the show reprising several honky-tonk duets he recently recorded for his new album, "In Spite of Ourselves." While the hilarious title track was the only tune composed by Prine, most of the songs drawn from the album reflected his peculiar take on things and his passion for wordplay. It's not every day, Prine explained, one comes across a song that rhymes "martini" with "weenie." Even Prine, though, had difficulty fully comprehending the mate-swapping ballad "Let's Invite Them Over"--a song that truly belongs in country music's oddball hall of fame. After opening the show with a series of quaint but emotionally powerfully ballads, DeMent charged the duets with a stark, yearning soprano that made even the strangest refrains sound heartfelt.
Most of the show, however, found Prine surveying his 3O-year career. Several of his best-known songs, including the sing-along novelties "Illegal Smile" and "Dear Abby," were reserved for a solo set, but the support provided by bassist David Jacques and multi-instrumentalist Jason Wilber was always welcome. Wilber's deft use of electric and lap steel guitars, mandolin, dobro and harmonica colored the arrangements as Prine leisurely moved back and forth between songs ridiculous and sublime, such as "Souvenirs," "Angel From Montgomery," "The Sins of Memphisto," "Everyone Wants to Feel Like You" and "Paradise." Lots of amusing anecdotes punctuated the show, including one based on Prine's encounter with huge fiberglass roosters in the Midwest. That bizarre tale alone was worth the price of admission.