Chuck Prophet gets credit at Club Helsinki
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 22, 2002) – Chuck Prophet brought down the house with his final number, the Rolling Stones-ish “Give Me Some Credit,” on Sunday night at Club Helsinki. And credit is exactly what he deserved by that point, for two sets of utterly dynamic and entertaining rock ‘n’ roll that connected the dots between Johnny Cash rockabilly, 1960s garage-rock, Bob Dylan and The Band, Southern rock and Southern gothic pop, ‘70s soul and Blaxploitation funk, and a host of other influences.
Prophet was a theatrical performer, leading his versatile band, the Mission Express, through his songs from all over the American musical road map, tied together by his visionary sensibility. From his twangy, surf guitars to his soul preacher moves, Prophet was an iconoclast, and in form and in content – narratives about losers, drifters, con men and the like – his show could have been the soundtrack to a Quentin Tarantino film.
The early part of his show was devoted to soulful country-rock songs like “You Been Gone” and “After the Rain.” With vocal harmonies provided by guitarist Max Butler and keyboardist Stephanie Finch and with his eloquent guitar fills, Prophet was paying tribute to the roots-rock dignity of The Band. And there hasn’t been a guitarist in a long time to take Robbie Robertson’s grammar and vocabulary and build on it and to use the instrument for its articulate musical possibilities, and not merely to play blues and jazz licks.
On several numbers, including “I Bow Down to Pray to Every Woman I See,” Prophet made use of a vintage microphone that made his voice sound like it was coming through an old radio. It gave his songs added depth and resonance and a timeless quality.
“Run Primo, Run” was built in a “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style riff, and Prophet sang it in a no-holds-barred Dylanesque sneer. “Apology” boasted the great line, “She don’t even know Elvis from El Vez,” and “What Can You Tell Me” boasted the great couplet, “They say the heart is a wheel/She made my heart a meal.”
Some claim to hear echoes of Tom Petty in Prophet’s work, but I think that’s really a case of shared influences. Like Petty, Prophet is clearly a Dylan fanatic. For his second-set opener, he dug out the totally obscure Dylan number, “Abandoned Love,” a lengthy outtake from Dylan’s “Desire” sessions. Not only did Prophet know all the words, he also had Dylan’s unique guitar style down pat, and his band perfectly captured the mariachi-rock arrangement of the original.
Also like Petty, Prophet has one foot in the garage – witness his group’s Farfisa organ-inflected “Business Is Good,” a bit of Sixties-ish pogo-rock on which drummer Winston Watson – ex- of Bob Dylan’s road band -- played snare with one hand and shook a maraca with the other.
But in the second set, Prophet also channeled his love for soul music on numbers like the Blaxploitation funk-style “I Am the Shore Patrol” (movie references abound in his songs, this one presumably from “The Last Detail”) and the full-throttle r&b of “Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight,” which featured guest saxophonist Derek Houston from the Iguanas. On this last number, Prophet went over the top like Beck in full James Brown mode, falling to the floor and dying theatrically with shots of snare by Watson.
In the way he combines all these various influences in his strange demeanor and cinematic, noirish narratives, Prophet is an utter original. He only resembles Tom Petty and Beck in that there really is no difference in talent between them. One can easily imagine seeing Prophet play the exact same show he played at the small club on the stage at SPAC or any summer shed or arena, before an audience that could not have been more responsive or energized than the one at Helsinki – only larger.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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