Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express with Strings – The Great American Music Hall (San Francisco, CA – November 24, 2013)
The life of a contemporary indie musician is fraught with uncertainty, not least of which is, “How am I going to pay my rent next month?” The evolving realities of the music business have shifted the onus of generating income from recordings to performing and Chuck Prophet, with the Mission Express, has been on his version of the never ending tour for years now, crisscrossing the US and Europe and building a reputation as one of the hottest, tightest, most imaginative, and consistently rewarding live acts on the circuit.
Since the economics of performing dictate that you keep your expenses to a minimum, the announcement that Prophet planned to perform his fascinating and ambitious Temple Beautiful album in its entirety, accompanied by a string octet at what has become his home venue, San Francisco’s marvelously rococo Great American Music Hall, was met with surprise. Furthermore, word was he planned to record and film the show for subsequent release. None of which is a recipe for keeping a lid on costs.
Talk about walking on a wire; there were so many ways this could go wrong starting with the marriage of roots rock and strings. Many were perplexed and admittedly unable to imagine how, but for a few obvious choices like “Museum of Broken Hearts,” “He Came From So Far Away,” or “Emperor Norton In The Last Year Of His Life,” Prophet could successfully marry rock arrangements with strings.
The challenge with strings is that, while adding dimension, depth, and texture, they equally impose limitations on the rock format. It’s much easier to get it wrong than to get it right, either by overpowering the strings with a full on rock assault, overwhelming them and rendering them irrelevant or, equally, by foregoing the muscularity and urgency of rock in deference to the sensibility of bowed instruments. And while one might be predisposed to trust Prophet’s musical sensibility, his vision, and his imagination, the probability, the expectation even, was a mismatch of intention and effort with result.
Instead, as his fans have come to expect, Prophet pulled it off brilliantly.
The change in Prophet’s approach to the songs was immediately evident by the instrumentation of the Mission Express: Vicente Rodriguez’ drum kit was reduced to a floor tom, a snare, and a high hat; Kevin T. White was standing behind a beautiful double bass; James DePrato was seated next to a formidable battery of acoustic and electric guitars including a 12-string and a dobro, and perhaps most surprising, Stephanie Finch was playing a 5-octave celeste, a keyboard instrument whose hammers strike steel plates suspended over wooden resonators, (thanks Wikipedia) giving off a vibraphone-ish sound whose luster and foundation brightened the entire evening.
Prophet, on acoustic for most of the night but for when he donned his Silvertone electric (his trusty Squier was MIA for the entire evening,) assumed his band leader role, much as he had during his last tour which culminated in the now legendary May set at GAMH. As band leader, he’s less guitar god and more ring leader, concerned with and focusing on the overall sound of the band and the songs themselves.
Arrayed opposite the Mission Express, on the right side of the stage, was the string octet – 4 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos – conducted by the co producer of the Temple Beautiful album, Brad Jones. Prophet had traveled to Memphis early in the fall to write the string charts with Jones and they succeeded brilliantly; everything was in service to the songs, nothing was superfluous, and there was never a sense of writing the charts just to maximize the use of the strings; some songs used the strings only sparingly, for others, the strings were the backbone of the arrangement.
Members of the octet were clearly relishing their roles; big grins lighting up their faces as they dug into their duties or responded to Prophet’s occasional provocations. One, sitting behind her electrified carbon fiber cello, obviously felt she had been born to play this kind of music.
One is continually impressed by the depth and quality of Prophet’s 20 year catalogue of songs and, as the evening progressed, what stood out was how strong, in this era of the iTunes single, is each and every cut on the Temple Beautiful album. Each song was exquisitely reimagined for the setting and seemed more perfectly realized than its predecessor. While every song was its own highlight, of particular note were Roy Loney, whose Flaming Groovies inspired the young Prophet back in the day, singing background vocals on “Temple Beautiful,” James DePrato’s impeccably delicate, lower register solo on “Museum of Broken Hearts,” the Prophet / DePrato Thin Lizzy inspired guitar dual at the end of “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat,” and Finch’s ringing vocals on “Little Girl, Little Boy.”
The whole affair had a curiously unhurried air about it, with both players and the sold out crowd clearly relishing the night and in no hurry to have it end.
The evening finished up with a two song encore; a rocking sendup of the Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” (which Prophet claims should be San Francisco’s official anthem) and an achingly beautifully take on “No Other Love.”
With a wave and a smile, Prophet ended the night with, “Let’s do this again sometime,” and you have to wonder if he’ll try to duplicate this in other cities with local string ensembles. One would hope so. SD