John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III at The Orpheum Theatre, 11/19/11

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John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III Orpheum Theatre Saturday, November 19, 2011

Early yesterday afternoon, I found myself at Tempe Marketplace, wandering the parking lot dazed. Christmas music wafted through the air. With nearly a week left before Thanksgiving.

Look, I get it, but I'm a traditionalist. Some people hate Christmas music, but I don't. I just feel like you shouldn't play that stuff until after Thanksgiving. But the insidious marketing worked; I started thinking "Should I start my Christmas shopping?"

I resisted, and a few hours later, I was sitting in the beautifully ornate Orpheum Theatre, listening to Loudon Wainwright III sing "Suddenly It's Christmas."

"Suddenly it's Christmas," he sang in his signature yelp. "Right after Halloween/Forget about Thanksgiving/It's just a buffet in between."

Loudon Wainwright III sings about a couple things: about growing old, about being cranky, and about family. It may seem like a recipe for boredom, but the man is anything but. Armed with just a solo acoustic guitar and a strapping wit, Wainwright cracked the crowd up.

He joked about Danny Zelisko, the longtime concert promoter who presented this show (and has presented John Prine more than any other artist) bribing him to play "Dead Skunk," his 1973 novelty hit. Wainwright asked the crowd to sing along, and everyone obliged.

He dedicated "Spelled My Name Wrong Again," dedicating it to the staff at The Orpheum, who, puzzlingly, spelled his name wrong on the gorgeous marquee out front. He sang selections from his latest album, the politically minded Songs For the New Depression, and new songs, about his father, and his grandchildren. Reciting a litany of medicines in the song "My Meds," he joked about his target demographic, but you don't have to be old to enjoy Wainwright's music: you just have to feel old.

John Prine's set proved that the one-time "New Dylan" hasn't lost a thing. His voice has grown gruffer since cancer surgery ten years ago (he dedicated a song to the doctor who performed the surgery, who was in attendance with his guitar playing son). But the added depth hasn't distracted from what makes his voice so wonderful. It sounds even harder-earned, with the necessary gravel to sell his existential lines about growing older, growing apart, finding love and losing it.

He too showed off his humorous side on songs like "Dear Abby" and "Christmas in Prison," but there was gravity, too. "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and "Tom Stone" and "Sam Stone" explored Prine's anti-war roots. "I wrote this so long ago I can't remember which war I wrote it about," he joked before playing "Flag." It was fantastic.

Guitarist Jason Wilber added subtle color to Prine's Midwest stories, and bassist Dave Jacques alternated between electric and acoustic bass, adding his own counter melodies and foundation.

Over the course of twenty songs, Prine grew more and more comfortable. "Bear Creek Blues" was mellow; "Angel From Montgomery" was devastating; "Hello in There," where he sings of a relationship falling apart, was absolute in its scope: "Old trees grow stronger," he sang, but "People just grow lonely."

Following a brief encore, Loudon Wainwright emerged to join Prine and his duo. Launching into "Paradise," the four men were all smiles. Both Prine and Wainwright are songwriters who aren't afraid of a laugh, and certainly aren't afraid to sing about heartache. They are songwriters who find real big truths in tiny moments, and we need songwriters like that.

Otherwise, you're just standing in a parking lot bitching about the Christmas rush coming to early. We need artists to make that feeling into poetry.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: John Prine and Loudon Wainwright III

Better Than: Listening to American Routes on NPR, because it felt like I was listening to American Routes in person.

The Crowd: Cultured cowboys; old school "hipsters" (yeah, believe it or not, people dressed cool, drank beer, and listened to good records before the Urban-Outfitting of America)

Personal Bias: I love Prine's music, but Wainwright's records are some of my favorites, and I was sad his set wasn't as long as Prine's. I would have loved to hear "Lullaby," "The Swimming Song," "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House," and "Dump the Dog."

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