(HUDSON, N.Y.) – I’ve been seeing Chuck Prophet annually at Club Helsinki for the past dozen years, and two things are pretty constant: Prophet just gets better each time, and his relative lack of fame just grows more and more inexplicable.
Prophet’s concert with his band, the Mission Express, last Saturday night, was one of the best in memory. It stands out from the rest for many reasons, not the least being a full house (finally!) geared to have a great time. And with a packed dance floor, Prophet and company seemed extra-energized, and they played a nearly nonstop two-hour set.
It takes nothing away from Prophet’s many talents to say that he is an incredible showman and entertainer. He is unique – he wears a bemused, faux-naif grin almost the entire time, and he protects himself with that character. It fits in well with his songs, which themselves are mostly mini-dramas about fictional characters in all kinds of situations – miniature movies, almost.
But without the songs, without the music, all this would be for naught. And Prophet is building a body of work that rivals the greatest singers and songwriters of the rock era. He has a broad command of styles, and on Saturday night numbers ranged from twang-rock to soulful ballads to glam-rock to Allman Brothers-style Southern rock. Prophet is himself an encyclopedia of rock ‘n’ roll phrasing and styles on guitar, primarily his blonde Telecaster, and with Mission Express guitarist James DePrato, the two turned on a dime from John Lennon/George Harrison, Duane Allman/Dickey Betts, and Keith Richards/Ron Wood riffage.
Just the first few minutes of his show were a display of Prophet’s savvy command of the history of music, which he twists and ties to his own purpose. An opening verse of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” quickly segued into “Wish My Luck,” from his terrific new album, “Night Surfer.” The song namechecks Henry Rollins, veers into Argent-like glam while remaining rootsy, and boasts the verbal byplay one has come to expect from Prophet and love him for: “In my father’s house, there are no doors.” He could be answering Bob Dylan or the Christian Bible; it doesn’t matter. He’s just funny.
And then the Mission Express turns on a dime and cranks out the new album’s “hit” single, “Ford Econoline,” a paean to old Detroit and traveling via van, a song that namechecks Talking Heads and that is infused with Prophet’s dizzying double entendres.
More glee followed with “Just to See You Smile,” which fuses Motown harmonies with Beatles-esque hooks, followed by a cover of Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok,” a telling choice (Chilton himself being a pop-rock cult figure whose talent far exceeded his success) that fueled the dance floor with an old-style Twist rhythm.
There were more and more great tunes, including the title track to “Temple Beautiful,” a Rolling Stones-ish rocker recalling a beloved nightclub in his native San Francisco, “The Left Hand and the Right Hand,” about the love-hate relationships that have fueled so many great pop-rock groups (including the Everly Brothers, the Kinks, and Oasis), and “Who Shot John?”, one of his signature outlaw dramas.
Keyboardist Stephanie Finch, who in real life doubles as Mrs. Chuck Prophet – or, as he seems to put it at every show he’s ever done (is it in her contract?), “the brains behind pa” – took front and center for a rendition of “Different Drum,” best known as a hit for Linda Ronstadt, but again, tellingly, written by Mike Nesmith.
Prophet and DePrato turned “Summertime Thing” into a twin-guitar, Allman Brothers-style workout, but even at that, Prophet is a narrative guitarist, never showboating or noodling around, but always telling a story with his leads.
For the final encore, Prophet pulled out his beloved hit, “You Did,” which asks “Who put the ram in the rama-lama ding-dong,” and the Mission Express took it into Crazy Horse territory, with Prophet doing his best Neil Young – that other very narrative guitar soloist.
If this sounds like it was a great performance, I feel like I haven’t touched on what makes a Chuck Prophet concert such an unusual delight at a time when ignoring or even alienating audiences seems to be de rigueur behavior for so many so-called entertainers.