Review: John Prine sideman steps out as reflective balladeer

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This cover image released by WilberTone Records shows “Time Traveler,” by Jason Wilber. (WilberTone Records via AP)

Jason Wilber, “Time Traveler” (WilberTone)

Lucky man, Jason Wilber. For 24 years he traveled the world with a stage pass to every John Prine concert.

Wilber was Prine’s lead guitarist, and a terrific one at that. “Time Traveler” features the sideman doing his side gig as a singer-songwriter himself, and the album carries poignancy because of Prine’s death last month at age 73 from coronavirus complications.

The album’s 12 songs don’t really echo Prine, or the twang of Nashville. Wilber sounds more like a seasoned balladeer at a campus coffeehouse in, say, Bloomington, Indiana, which happens to be his hometown.

The album was recorded there well before Prine’s death, so it’s a coincidence the songs are appropriately reflective and wistful, the tempos mostly mid, the arrangements intimate. Wilber simultaneously is releasing a four-song EP titled “Honey Bee,” which has a bigger sound and even makes a late push into bouncy pop on “Free (The Singularity).”

Wilber’s plaintive tenor wears well throughout as he touches on a wide range of topics. He makes like Rocket Man on “Living In Space,” gets the seasonal blues with “On Holidays,” and considers the tangled web known as the internet on “Spider.” “If We Were Free” seems especially pertinent to the present moment when Wilber sings, “Outside our walls a world burns.”

While Wilber goes solo, he doesn’t solo much. For a better sample of his guitar skills, check out the 2010 set “John Prine: In Person & On Stage.”