Peter Case / Chuck Prophet – Schubas Tavern (Chicago, IL)
On paper, the pairing was a perfect package: Two troubadours who’ve followed equally vagabond muses down similar sidetracks. But Peter Case and Chuck Prophet weren’t touring together; this double bill was a one-night-only result of right-place/right-time good fortune.
Prophet took the stage first. Like Case, whose seven solo albums since the dissolution of the Plimsouls have led him a million miles away from his old band’s new-wave power-pop, Prophet has sought to shed the memory of his former group. The former Green On Red guitar slinger spent a handful of years “ignoring North America in the hopes that it would go away” (his words), recording four albums that earned him critical acclaim and a loyal cult in Europe but were met with a stateside shrug. Now with a new record on HighTone, The Hurting Business, Prophet is finally kicking up dust on this side of the Atlantic again.
Ably abetted by his band the Mission Express — drummer Paul Revelli and bassist Rob Douglas laid a funky foundation, while Prophet’s wife Stephanie Finch added harmony vocals and swirling keys — the square-jawed, sandy-haired frontman ripped through a set heavy on new material. Like Joe Henry’s recent albums, The Hurting Business proffers a kind of electro-folk noir sound. Rendered live, those songs came off both moodier (“Rise”) and groovier (“Shore Patrol”).
Leading his band, working the crowd, and especially when (as on his introduction to “Apology”) spinning a long anecdote involving Randy Newman, Glen Campbell and El Vez in an airport lounge, Prophet came off as a crackpot genius a la Howe Gelb or Johnny Dowd, albeit one who just wants to rock. And when he did, the spirit clearly moved him: He stiffened his limbs and contorted his face as he unleashed melting atmospherics on “New Year’s Day”. As the band worked a Stonesy riff on “Diamond Jim”, he fell to his knees, pleading in a Beck-like falsetto.
Prophet was a tough act to follow, and at the start Case hardly seemed up to the task. His subdued sound and reticent manner were no match for the muscular Mission Express and its leader’s chipper chatter and thrift-shop couture. That the early part of Case’s set stayed afloat was due largely to the talents of violinist David Perales, a longtime Alejandro Escovedo sideman who played on Case’s new album, Flying Saucer Blues. As Case’s sole accompanist, Perales showcased a dynamic range as both a player and harmony vocalist. He sparkled on “Something Happens”, his bowed strings bathing the song in elegant warmth.
But Prophet had rocked the crowd so righteously that such subtleties seemed lost; the room buzzed with idle chatter. Responding with the determination of a seasoned veteran, Case took charge. He nodded to Perales, and both unplugged, then strode off the stage and to the center of the room. Encircled by the crowd, the two huddled close to hear one another. Case strummed a little harder to make himself heard; Perales soared high in harmony. They kicked the floorboards, and everyone clapped and sang along.
The audience’s attention regained, Case and Perales climbed back onstage and hit their stride. Perales cut to the heart of the reflective ballad “Blue Distance” with a scrabbling, searching solo.
But Case’s best came last, when he resorted to the old adage, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Backed by Prophet and his band, he cut loose, tearing happily through “Old Blue Car” and “Two Angels”. And though he said from the stage that he “never thought he’d play this song in Chicago again,” Case closed the night with a cathartic sprint through his old Plimsouls chestnut, “A Million Miles Away”.