Singer-songwriter Matt Newberg was introduced at a friend’s wedding to the songwriter who later would become one of his biggest influences. The songwriter was John Prine, and the song his friends asked him to play at their wedding was “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.”
“It’s kind of a strange song for a wedding, since it’s kind of dark … but if you knew my friends, it would make sense,” said Newberg, a midcoast native now living in Bath. “But it was my entry point for his music. I knew his big songs at that point, but never really delved into it. I got into everything he’s done, from his hits to the older, more obscure stuff. I became a huge fan, forever.”
Many years later, Newberg has taken his love of Prine’s songs and his own journey as a musician and combined them into one interesting concert. “John Prine Turns 40: A Tribute to His 1971 Debut Album,” in which Newberg and a 10-piece band will perform that album in its entirety, is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Camden Opera House. It will be performed again at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 18, at the Space Gallery in Portland.
Newberg has released five albums of intelligent, soulful, country-influenced folk rock, both as a solo artist and with his former band, The Hurricane. His most recent solo album, “Back From the Trail of Tears,” came out in 2008. Since then, he has focused mostly on his day job: teaching music at the Hyde School in Bath. He got the idea for a Prine tribute concert about a year ago when he was mulling over the idea of covering a full album live.
“I’ve never really been one for covers. I’ve always focused on my own stuff,” said Newberg. “But this seemed like kind of a neat idea. And then it just seemed like John Prine’s first album would really be a great one to cover.”
For Newberg, as for many of Prine’s fans, the appeal of the songs lies in a large way in Prine’s unflinching lyrical voice, revealing the gritty details of life — though his lyrics are often tempered with a great deal of humor.
“He’s so unique. He’s got this real goofy, tongue-in-cheek side, and then he’s also got very direct stuff that will just level you,” said Newberg. “I think being able to have humor in your songs is a total gift. I tried it, and it wasn’t my thing. His writing has been hugely influential on me, right up with folks like James McMurtry and Neil Young.”
Around the time Newberg was beginning to put his proposed concert together, he had a conversation with his old friend Gary Lawless, a poet and owner of Brunswick bookstore Gulf of Maine Books. Lawless told Newberg about the work he had been doing with Vietnam veterans, getting them to write poetry about their lives.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to include this in the concert,’” said Newberg. “Tons of John Prine’s songs deal directly with issues facing Vietnam vets, especially songs like ‘Sam Stone,’ which is on the first album. It all fell into place after that.”
At Saturday’s concert, Newberg and the band, put together especially for this show, will perform the self-titled 1971 debut in full, from the sweet, shimmering “Illegal Smile” to the classic country torch song “Angel From Montgomery.” After the album is completed, Lawless and two of the veterans he works with, Terry Grasse and Rip Tyoe, will read poems, followed by performances of a handful of other Prine songs not featured on the debut album.
The band features a long list of great Maine musicians, including Steve Jones, Gregg Hoover, Jeff Glidden, Stuart MacDonald, Mason Thayer, Sean Finn, Jeff Trippe, Steve Deptula and Laura Piela. Also featured will be Newberg’s eight-year-old daughter, Dylan, who will sing harmony on the song “Paradise.”