Chuck Prophet: Mission Accomplished
Chuck Prophet waged war on rock and roll last night at Madison’s High Noon Saloon. He won. There were casualties.
Buddy Holly took a shot for the team. Prophet magically inhabited Holly’s realm both musically and physically: wide-eyed earnestness on his face, halts and hiccups in his singing.
NRBQ was embraced and then vanquished from the battlefield when Prophet and his loyal army known as Mission Express breezed through the soft and sweet “Just to See You Smile.”
The San Francisco native is commanding the best music of his career atop the jangling masterpiece that is his new record, Night Surfer. All comparisons aside, no one is writing rock songs with a hit-rate quite like Prophet right now. Certainly no one is performing them with this amount of sparkle. He served up juicy slabs from “Night Surfer” all night to an audience of starving, hipster rock hounds.
In burnt orange Nudie suit and Porter Wagoner cravat, Prophet stalked the stage in search of trouble for two solid hours. Prophet seems like the kind of guy who is, deep down, most at ease in life on stage (although during a crazed lead guitar break he took out in the middle of the crowd late in the set, he looked a-okay there as well).
He’s a trickster. He prologue-ed “Wish Me Luck” from the new album with an embossed treatment of another Bay-area songwriting superstar, “written by a guy across the water from us.” He used a slice of John Fogerty’s “Stuck in Lodi” as a ramp to “Wish Me Luck.” The audience wanted more of the former, teased by Prophet’s intense, honest cover of it, but forgot all about it two bars into the performer’s own tune.
Some of Prophet’s between song banter is clearly a city-to-city schtick. But that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. He began what sounded like a lecture late in the show. He actually hushed the mid-sized, hard drinking crowd into silence.
“Security here talked with me. If any of you are taping this—and I see phones out—if any of you are recording this, I just want you to know that this is what we do for a living. Think about that.” The silent crowd shifted nervously.
“If you are recording this,” he repeated, I only hope you include this next song! Let’s get this shit out there!”
Then he flung his 4-piece into “Temple Beautiful,” the Modern Lovers-style anthem from the 2012 Yep Rock release of the same name, his 12th album. Audience rapture peaked here, giving the bandleader the response to his call for the title of the song all the way through.
Among many others, Prophet has worked with Jonathan Richman and it shows. Both artists make bad-ass rock with heart and humor. Mastery and mockery. And both can’t help being complete, fun loving knuckleheads on stage.
Still. This ain’t no slap-stick. Prophet’s knucklehead energy merely comes across as the joy of rock. And the depth and poetry of it, too.
Prophet never tells you what’s in the letter he sings about in “You Did.” It’s that absence and the tension it causes, that charges the listener. My friend claims that kind of lyricism is the Hemingway in Prophet. He’s right.
Like a hipster Johnny and June Carter, Prophet and his wife, keyboardist Stephie Finch, did a couple of front-and-center numbers together. Finch’s dimples appeared every time she smiled during “Little Boy, Little Girl.” She’s the best singer in a band where nearly everyone sings.
For all the drama and electricity in the songs and performance of Chuck Prophet, looking closely at Prophet’s Fender telecaster tells the whole story. It’s a wreck. I swear I thought I saw mold growing across the upper frets. It looks parted out, re-parted out, banged, dropped, stomped on, and carved up. And thoroughly loved. From it Prophet squeezes 100-proof rock and roll, the relentless rock that allows him to make the audacious, zany invitation he gave to the audience of hard working 9-to-5-‘ers at the High Noon: “Lets do this for Wednesday night!”