Show Review: Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express @ the Tractor Tavern, Seattle, WA – 12/10/09
When Chuck Prophet took the Tractor stage with his longtime band The Mission Express Thursday night, he did so with the cocksure swagger of a rock lifer who knows he’s just made the album of his career (thus far). After a prerecorded snippet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” Prophet & co. kicked into ¡Let Freedom Ring!‘s London Calling-esque opener, “Sonny Liston’s Blues,” with a muscularity worthy of its namesake. At that moment, it was apparent that the sizable weeknight crowd had come to the right place.
Chuck was jovial throughout, lecturing on border crossing, social networking (“How many of your Facebook friends would pick you up at the airport?”), and condescension (“You know, like when I talk down to you…”), hilariously. I’m even willing to forgive the polka-dot neck kerchief he was sporting…but just this once.
The band was on fire, tearing into “Always a Friend” (co-penned with Alejandro Escovedo, and featured on his Real Animal album) with a ferocity that bested the original, to these ears. And the ballads were no less sublime. Buoyed by James DePrato’s slide guitar, the instrumental coda of “Would You Love Me?” (one of my all-time favorites) built to a conclusion of Layla-like grandeur (minus the bird chirping, mercifully).
Messrs. Prophet and DePrato have honed their guitar interplay considerably since the last time they played the Tractor, working in anthemic twin-guitar overtures (think “All the Young Dudes”) to enterprising effect throughout. To that end, the Mission Express’ reading of Bruce Springsteen’s “For You” adds up to nearly *the* perfect cover tune, in my estimation: eliciting catcalls of recognition from the audience members ‘of a certain age’, yet seamlessly of a piece with his own material. The insertion of a tasty, Gorham/Robertson-worthy harmony lead cast the Springsteen/Thin Lizzy lineage in sharp relief and made it one of the evening’s highlights, for me. (Video here, courtesy of Mr. David Helton. )
As always, the onstage chemistry between Mr. Prophet and Ms. Stephanie Finch (his wife of many years) was palpable. After a lovely duet on Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All,” Chuck happily assumed the role of sideman for Ms. Finch’s solitary lead vocal showcase, “Don’t Back Out Now” (from her forthcoming album, Cry Tomorrow*). His guitar solo didn’t quite scale the lofty, Richard Thompson-joins-Television heights it has on some nights of this tour, but still called to mind some of Tom Verlaine’s ecstatic Blow-Up explorations.
(*Incidentally, keep an eye out for Stephanie’s album when it’s released (on Chuck’s own ((bellesound)) label) next year. I managed to score an advance copy at the merch table, and it’s as terrific as you’d expect from ‘the brains behind Pa,’ as Chuck has affectionately dubbed her. Call me crazy, but I can see this album finding an audience with the masses who gobbled up the She & Him album last year, although Stephanie’s album is vastly superior – always a stumbling block to mass appeal.)
After a raucous (‘like God’s balls…’) rendition of Brother Aldo‘s “Look Both Ways,” the band left the stage for approximately one minute and returned with a spot-on cover of Alex Chilton’s immortal, educational “Bangkok,” right down to the impressively-replicated tape echo effects and Eddie Cochran vocal hijinx. They followed with “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp),” which featured Chuck’s only extended guitar workout of the night, and closed the first encore with a romp through the Yardbirds’ classic rave-up, “I’m Not Talking.”
After another short break, the band returned to the stage for one final encore. Instead of going out with a bang (they’ve closed at least one show on this tour with Iggy’s “I’m Bored”), they opted for the ethereal, haunting ballad “No Other Love,” from 2002’s album of the same name. Although it seemed an odd closer at first, in retrospect, it fit the early-morning, closing-time vibe perfectly. The perfect come-down after the previous hour’s exhilaration.
The band split up to hawk merchandise and schmooze with the faithful, and after exchanging a few words with Mr. Prophet (and passing along a Red Jacket Mine CD), I stumbled onto Ballard Avenue, slightly dazed, but satisfied.
To borrow his phrase, we’ll see you around campus, Chuck. Soon, I hope.
‘Beautiful Dreamer’ / Intro
Sonny Liston’s Blues
I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See
Always a Friend (Alejandro Escovedo)
Just to See You Smile
Would You Love Me?
Doubter Out of Jesus
For You (Bruce Springsteen)
You and Me Baby (Holdin’ On)
Let Freedom Ring
Summertime Thing (solo acoustic)
We Had It All (Waylon Jennings)
Don’t Back Out Now (Stephanie on lead vocals)
Look Both Ways / improv
Bangkok (Alex Chilton)
I’m Not Talking (Yardbirds)
No Other Love
(Photo courtesy of Michael O’Neill)