Renowned singer/songwriter Chuck Prophet took some time on the road from Milwaukee to chat in advance of last night’s Turf appearance. His comments provided context that added to the experience. I came away from the conversation thinking that here was that lucky man who was doing exactly what he wanted to do. In addition to playing the role of respected rocker, he’s written for others, produced, played on a lot of records. “If I can get up in the morning and do something creative then I feel like I’m pretty lucky, you know?” The words that come to mind are troubadour or wandering minstrel.
Prophet is no stranger to the area. At some point he’s graced nearly every established stage from the Mainroom to The Dakota. “We love the Twin Cities. I mean, I would say Minneapolis/St. Paul was one of the first places we got a toehold.”
We talked about the Twin Cities punk scene in the late 70’s through middle 80’s. While he admitted that he really wasn’t closely following that movement his early band Green On Red had shared a bill with The Replacements. “You know, I believe one of those nights was the last show Bob Stinson did with the band. I remember seeing guys shaking his hand but really didn’t think anything of it at the time. It’s one of those things that becomes myth.”
Fans began to line up outside the sold out Turf Club nearly an hour prior to doors. Not at all surprising given Prophet’s history with the Twin Cities. What is different about that early Turf queue, however, is the patrons weren’t there to get to the front of the stage. Most arrive early to stake out their favorite spot at the bar or grab one of the limited tables. The time to push into the crowd on the dance floor comes hours later.
New York City openers Jeremy & The Harlequins hit the stage at straight up 9pm. The club was nearing capacity. The Harlequins are comprised of Chris Bon and Patrick Meyer on guitar with rhythm section of Bobby Ever and Stevie Fury backing Jeremy Fury on vocals. Their affinity for the classic rock styling of the late 50’s and early 60’s was immediately apparent. A number of the first songs in the set could easily have been lifted from a Buddy Holly playbook. But they brought with them a much more New York kind of edge. Jeremy’s jeans and plaid shirt, replete with bandanna in back pocket was a nod to Asbury Park. Despite the denim, the sunglasses and lean look of guitarist Chris Bon echoed Joey Ramone.
Midway through the set, the band rolled out new songs from their brand new 3rd album, Remember This. The vibe immediately changed to something more modern. My notes reflected something of a West Coast influence and my next day research showed that this album was actually cut out in Los Angeles. The band was reaching for a sound that reflected the urgency of the present while maintaining the romance of the past. Mission Accomplished.
The Turf crowd was locked and loaded for The Mission Express; what Prophet calls: “My best band ever. These guys can go wherever we want to go.” He hit the stage in blue mohair suit and bolo tie to an enthusiastic, welcome back kind of reception. The band immediately dropped into a drum heavy Link Wray kind of groove as an introduction. “Link Wray had a lot to say with just drums and a guitar”. That was followed by the title track from the last release as Prophet intoned: Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.
After the heavy Comin’ Out In Code, the irrepressible band leader talked about 2017 and those we had lost. The song A Bad Year For Rock and Roll referenced the passing of the likes of Peter Sellers and David Bowie. That nod to the passing of the greats would be expressed once again when the band returned to the stage at the end of the evening for their encore.
During our conversation about The Mission Express (James DePrato guitar, Vincente Rodriqguez drums, Kevin White bass) he made special mention of his wife and band mate: “my secret weapon, Stephanie Finch” (keys, synths, vocals). Her value to the band rose to the top as they segued into the hard rocking Storm Across The Ocean. All the members of the band seem like family and genuinely enjoy each other. But Chuck always seems to reserve a special smile for Finch’s stellar work. Their vocal harmonies throughout the evening were beautifully matched.
If Prophet is anything, he’s a storyteller. He talked about growing up in San Francisco and following the antics of the infamous Mitchell Brothers who ran the city’s most notorious strip joint. They were fixtures in the press. They got rich and endured escalating raids and fought back against attempts to shut them down. One the most famous battles was with new mayor Dianne Feinstein who made it her mission to close those doors. Their response to her campaign was to use their marquee to publish her private phone number with the advice…For A Good Time Call! He called them proponents of free speech until the day one of the Mitchell boys did one too many lines of cocaine before shooting his brother to death. This was the basis for the next song up, The Left Hand and The Right Hand. Classic California Noir. “rags to riches to rags again and fast paced violence are always on the menu on the Left Coast.”
Run Primo Run and Killing Machine drove home the point that sometimes less is more, particularly in the hands of a band that knows what it’s doing. Despite some Hand Jive and Link Wray type guitar grooves, the approach is never complex. The music always serves the song rather than ever letting the story get pushed to the rear. It’s amazing what you can do with three chords if you focus on tone, dynamics, a killer hook and an interesting tale to tell.
2007’s You and Me Baby (Holding On) was a show stopper. It’s a universal theme that’s more topical than ever. We’re all just trying to keep on keepin’ on. Prophet mentioned: “It’s how you get up that says something about who you are.” The vocal framework within which he worked between Finch and Rodriguez was inviting and sublime.
An hour in and the band was in full blown cruise control. The crowd was engaged and Prophet told stories and set up songs like the troubadour he is. He’s self deprecating, well read and willing to share the event, line or experience that spawned a song. He mentioned a slow day sitting in his office reading the newspaper. “Must have been slow because I found myself on the first page of the business section!” He was shocked to discover that Ford was ceasing production of that tried and true chariot of thousands of bands, crisscrossing the continent: the iconic Econoline. Ford Econoline, with the audience howling back at him, might have been my favorite moment of the evening.
During our earlier conversation about the songwriting process, Prophet talked about being one of those guys who never really knew where a song would come from. Sometimes it was a matter of just jamming on guitar with DePrato. Sometimes it was that Econoline bit of news. Sometimes it was easy. Every now and then it was something like Jesus Was A Social Drinker. “This one probably took a good 10 years before it got included on the new album. It was my problem child.” But the song was worth the wait because in so many ways it seems to personify Prophet. Irreverent? A bit. Scathing or critical? Never. Humorous and touching? Absolutely. My notes say that the Kinks Ray Davies wishes he’d written this one.
Prior to launching into the hardest rocking tune of the evening You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp) Prophet warned the audience that things were about to get intense. For those with grey hair (most of us), heart conditions, family conditions or any conditions whatsoever, perhaps it was time to take a break! The crowd was having none of it and roared back “You Did!”whenever he sang “Who put the bomp in the shooby dooby?”
The penultimate number was perhaps his biggest hit, Wish Me Luck. He not only asked this of the audience, he demanded it. For all that work and sweat, it was his due! The crowd sang Good Luck at the top of its lungs. At this point, some of his earlier words echoed. Like so many of his songs this was a Dylanesque kind of anthem. When I’d asked him about primary influences he commented: “Well, all roads lead back to Dylan.” The difference is that while Dylan remains aloof, Prophet is right there. Clad in garish suit, in love with his audience and sharing songs. Songs that begin with something simple and resonate with greater universal themes. Of course we should wish each other luck! Like the man requested at the end of the show: “Take care of yourself. And while you’re at it, take care of someone else.”
The main set concluded with Willie Mays Is Up To Bat. “One thing we can all agree on is that the greatest center-fielder of all time was a San Francisco Giant.” No doubt he grew up idolizing the Say Hey Kid like many of us from that generation. There remains this childhood belief in the song that Willy will certainly come to the rescue and save us all. 2018 and we need him more than ever. There’s three men on and two outs.
“Sing one for families re-united. Sing one for lovers, not the haters. Sing one for democracy; it had such great potential.”
The band thundered home and when Prophet turned the microphone to the crowd for a little back up vocals, I can’t recall a time The Turf was louder.
When the band returned for their encore he positioned Finch at the center of the stage. With acoustic guitar she led the band in a beautiful rendition of Aretha Franklin’s Do Right Woman, Do Right Man. One last time an echo of that earlier song A Bad Year For Rock and Roll. And a plea to us all to be better people.
On the way out the door I bumped into First Avenue’s oldest remaining employee, DJ Roy Freedom. He shook his head and smiled: “He’s always so damn good, isn’t he?” High praise from somebody who’s spent 40 years watching the best bands on the planet come and go. My thoughts exactly. Chuck Prophet, troubadour, story teller and road dog will be back before too long. And a full Twin Cities house will be there to welcome him back.