What is there to say once you said nearly all of it? It seems like I write about this guy every year. Here’s the lowdown on Chuck Prophet when he drops into the Turf Club: he owns the joint. And well he should.
Going to see Chuck when he comes to town is akin to your an annual dental check up. An oil change. Or your annual flu shot. (God, I hope years from now we’re not still doing Covid shots!). Not the unpleasant aspects obviously! I’m talking about the kind of thing you just put on the calendar without question. As soon as the show ends, you’d like to ask Chuck when he’ll be back next. No reason not to start filling in the 2022 show schedule.
When you write for an outfit like TCM you spend a lot of time going to shows solo. I’m cool with that. Sometimes I forget how much more fun it can be when you attend a show with friends and family. After all, it’s not just about my reaction to what’s going on up on the stage. It’s about also observing the reactions of others. In this case, it was my wife who claims she LOVES Chuck Prophet. Proof to be found in the fact that she begins her days by saying: “Hey Google, play some Chuck Prophet!”. The group also included an accomplished local songwriter/musician and a First Avenue off duty staff member. Think about that last one. Who goes to their place of employment on an off day? Crazy? Or on to something?
The evening kicked off with burgers and a delightful young singer/songwriter. Matt Jaffe hails from the same neck of the woods as Prophet. He seemed to take a page from the headliner’s playbook; delivering witty, well constructed songs about quirky characters or situations.
Some artists are made to play solo while some seem to blossom with a band. It seemed to me that Jaffe is meant to be a solo artist. One of the hallmarks of those who are good at it, is that they are born story-tellers. There’s always an inside story. To fully appreciate it, the artist tees it up. I realize many people believe the person on stage should stick to singing their songs. Sometimes that’s true. I look at it as entertainment. If it adds to the enjoyment, tell the stories. If it’s self indulgent, stick to the music. In Jaffe’s case, he’s a born story-teller.
My favorite moment of the set involved a trip he and a friend made to NYC. They decided to do every tourist thing available. When a Martha Stewart book signing popped up, they figured it was too good to miss. After all, it was Martha’s 94th book: Cookie Perfection. All they had to do was buy the book and the celeb would sign it for them. Wouldn’t Mama Jaffe just love the gift? Or take the hint?
Jaffe described the Queen of KMart as “prickly”. She immediately saw through the lark (he admits it was at least partially true). When he asked that he dedicate the book to his Mom, Stewart promptly misspelled her name and sent them packing. Jaffe claims he was not bitter. He’s risen above the slight. Then promptly dedicated the song Hell Hounds of Alcatraz to her. Good stuff that!
The break was short. Chuck Prophet was ready to go. As I’ve written on a couple occasions recently, it was immediately obvious that the band was pumped to be back on stage. When you spend your life crisscrossing the country in a Ford Econoline singing to friends, it’s got to be a shock to the system when everything shuts down. Add to that the fact that it was the opening night of the tour. Add to that… it was The Turf.
What’s Prophet’s connection to that gem of a room in the Midway? Like I said at the outset, it’s like he owns the joint. He told the faithful that his first ever stop occurred on a Sunday night back in 1982. Slim Dunlap of The Replacements used to hold court with a Sunday residency. Dunlap was kind enough to let this young band play some tunes. Prophet reflected: “Back then we’d jump in the van and drive from San Francisco to Florida for a gig. Then hit Dallas and up to St. Paul. We called it a North American tour.” It was also a night he never forgot and he holds a special reverence for how the Twin Cities has always supported him.
And if you think he’s the only one singing the Turf’s praises, he added that he’d recently spoken to his good friend Alejandro Escoveda. A magnificent rocker in his own right, Escovedo has effectively retired from the road. He informed him he was finally headed out on tour again. Kicking things off at The Turf. Escoveda responded: “The Turf Club. That place is cooool!”
What’s cool is when an artist loves playing a venue and the regulars are out in force to greet you.
For those who aren’t familiar with Prophet, he’s one of America’s greatest songwriters. Period. I’ve previously confessed that one of my desert island albums is Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal. That record was co-written with Prophet and it’s perfect. It was that writing credit which brought him to my attention and gave me an incentive to join the fan club.
Rock and roll takes many forms. Most important, however, is being an original. It never pays to describe the artist as being like so and so. Or following in the footsteps of some original. We tried doing it and failed. “A West Coast Tom Petty.” “A Bohemian Alejandro Escovedo.” “Nick Cage” (WTF? but then there was alcohol involved). Chuck Prophet is quirky, fun loving, smart and all about doing a show. None of this just deliver a series of songs kind of thing. We’re there for more than the songs. We’re there for the stories. The humor. He’s the whole enchilada.
Every now and again my wife gets riled up when an artist, in her mind, is not getting his or her due. For instance, last night The Turf was nicely full but not sold out. That offended her. “He’s so good! How can there be tickets left?” (Sure wouldn’t be on a Friday or Saturday, my dear). The first time Jason Isbell stopped in at The Turf after leaving Drive By Truckers, there were about a dozen of us. She griped about that for days. After all, it was Jason Isbell and future Grammy Awards proved her point.
But the fact of the matter is that there are reasons guys like Prophet aren’t playing the State or Orpheum. It’s not about talent. Music is anything but a meritocracy. Rather, it’s about marketability and usually that means a commitment to a current fashion or connecting with a lowest common denominator. Some artists are not willing to do that. It’s more important to always be able to do their own thing. I see Chuck Prophet that way. But he has zero worries about travelling the country and making a living playing to dedicated fans. These are the musicians’ musicians. Watch how many other people are lining up to cover their songs.
Last night was a delight. Not because the band was razor sharp. Nobody is on the first night of a tour. Or because Chuck’s running mate and keyboard player Stephanie Finch was not on stage. “Maybe we’ll see her down the road in Chicago. Everybody has to find their own way to get comfortable with this whole virus thing. I think the chances are good because when she sees how much fun we’re having again, it’ll be hard to resist.”
I, too, hope Stephanie is back in the fold before long. She adds a distinctive piece to the Mission Express. So the band built more around the pair of electric guitars last night. For those of us who have seen the band many times, it was a cool departure. A bit more raw, a bit more raucous. A bit more improvisational. During a sprawling encore edition of Summertime Thing, those two guitars got sparring. Two high end players reacting; bringing the noise. Enough that a wild eyed Prophet spontaneously yelped into the microphone: “WOW!” That’s what I thought, too.
They really did mean to walk off after Summertime Thing. But the Turf crowd wasn’t going to let them. Chuck stood for a long time, obviously moved. Then quietly said: “We’ll play another.” He dedicated Wasn’t I Always A Friend to his friend Alejandro Escovedo. Asked us to take care of ourselves and, if we could, take care of another as well. The night ended in a dance party. With a favorite cut from a desert island album.
Chuck Prophet feels like a friend. Rock and roll doesn’t get much finer.