by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 11, 2003) – Chuck Prophet had no need to spring a surprise on the crowd that packed Club Helsinki on Sunday night. Most had presumably come due to the tremendous buzz and word of mouth sparked by Prophet’s incendiary show before a small crowd at the club last summer. And Prophet didn’t disappoint on that score. He was the same quirky, rangy presence, taking command of the stage and the club in front of his minimalist rock quartet and running through a blistering set of his unique, cinematic original rock songs carved out of classic elements but given his idiosyncratic imprimatur.
But he sprung a surprise anyway when midway through he brought up Jules Shear – with whom he recorded “Raisins in the Sun,” a Traveling Wilburys-style knockoff that came out in 2001 and also included Memphis keyboard legend Jim Dickinson and Nashville bassist Harvey Brooks -- to join him for three numbers. Though hardly a household name, Shear’s is the pen behind some of the biggest hits of the rock era, including “If She Knew What She Wants” by the Bangles and Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night.” Prophet and company had Shear deliver the latter in a touching, country two-step arrangement, in the sort of spontaneous, magical moment that is the stuff of nightclub dreams.
The rest of the show wasn’t chopped liver, either. Backed by his incredibly tight ensemble he dubbed the Mission Express, featuring Stephanie Finch on keyboards and vocals, Rob Douglas on bass, and former Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson on drums, Prophet exuded utter command and confidence on both vocals and guitar. Drawing heavily from last year’s terrific “No Other Love” recording, Prophet kicked off the show with “What Can You Tell Me,” a slow blues that combined B.B. King-style linear guitar runs with Elvis Costello-derived wordplay: “They say the heart is a wheel/She made my heart a meal.”
“Til’ You Came Along” was a choice bit of hillbilly punk, marrying a chunky Johnny Cash beat to twangy, Buck Owens-style guitar answered by Finch’s Farfisa-style chords. A veritable catalog of keyboard sounds, Finch spread wavery, Leslie-like latticework through “You Been Gone,” playing Garth Hudson to Prophet’s Robbie Robertson on this very Band-like country-rock ballad.
It wasn’t all about quotation, however. Prophet brought to most of his material a noirish sensibility perfectly suited to the garage-rock arrangements of songs like “Run Primo Run,” “Textbook Case” and “It Won’t Be Long,” the latter about the ugly aftermath of a tabloid media intrusion on regular folks’ lives: “They came out of the woodwork to watch us do our act/They made a circus of our lives and they captured it on film.”
Prophet and company are making the sort of music that has made pop stars of the White Stripes and their ilk, yet they are doing so while drawing on a much wider canvas and with greater wit, intelligence and virtuosity. To paraphrase a kindred spirit, Neil Young, long may they run.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 13, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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