Review by Fred Rudofsky
“It’s not like opening a can of Pringles,” quipped Chuck Prophet, toward the end of a high-octane, two-hour rock and roll set in Hudson on a recent Saturday night. “You never know what you’re going to get!” Indeed, it was a night of welcome surprises for the sell-out crowd, which got to see an inspired double-bill at Club Helsinki.
Sarah Borges, a Club Helsinki favorite dating back to the club’s original site in Great Barrington, opened with a well-received solo acoustic set. Decked out in a fetching red floral dress and her trademark cowboy boots, Borges dipped into several songs from her days fronting the Broken Singles, one of the best roots-rocking bands from Boston. She introduced “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song” as “an honest look at the hangover blues.” Featured on Borges’s 2005 Silver City album, this classic gospel blues by Thomas Dorsey offered a candid rumination on sin and salvation. “The Day We Met” from 2007’s Diamonds in the Dark brimmed with images of love and lust, and ended with a curtsey by Borges. Placing the capo a third of the way up the fretboard, Borges put a distinct Latin beat into “Me and Your Ghost,” and sang the highest notes with ease.
“I expect your rapt attention,” Borges told the audience, who needed no instruction, given the smoldering, insistent “Symphony” (from 2009’s The Stars Are Out) that followed. Played at a slower tempo than usual, “Daniel Lee” sounded like a John Prine song, full of longing and images of driving at night. “Travelin’ Man” may have seemed like an out of left field choice, but Borges owned Ricky Nelson’s tender ode to wanderlust with her compelling soprano. “Here’s a song about a bunch of hookers,” announced Borges, who played an uptempo “On the Corner.” A sustained, heartbreaking “Oh!” for a half minute by Borges acted as its own chorus in the middle of the song, and earned her major applause.
Like Borges, Chuck Prophet is a fan favorite at Club Helsinki. The dance floor was already filling up as he and his talented Californian band, the Mission Express, opened with “Dollar Bill Blues,” a country-blues stomper with a touch of New Wave keyboards. “Let Freedom Ring!,” with a killer dual guitar riff by Prophet and James DePrato, pulled more to the dance floor, and “Doubter Out of Jesus” offered up some poetic genius. Prophet told a hilarious story about a gig they had played at the San Francisco International Airport – “Believe it or not, under the arrivals board!” – before a powerhouse take on “Always a Friend to You,” which he co-wrote with Alejandro Escovedo. Dancers filled every corner of the floor, and few, if any, were left seated at the tables.
On “Just to See You Smile” and “Automatic Blues,” drummer Vicente Rodriguez, bassist Kevin T. White, and keyboardist Stephanie Finch kept the energy high, the perfect encouragement for Prophet and DePrato to crank up gnarly tones and hit riffs that would leave Keith Richards or Bruce Springsteen envious. “Temple Beautiful,” the rollicking sing-along title cut of his 2012 album on YepRoc, was prefaced by Prophet’s wide-eyed recollection of seeing the Flamin’ Groovies in their prime and wanting to play rock and roll. “Who Shot John?” was a step into woozy, haunting, scorching guitar heaven, a tale either drawn from the Wild West or the modern-day Bay Area, depending on one’s interpretation. “Would You Love Me?” from Soap and Water – which one should “file under unrequited love,” noted Prophet as he strapped on his acoustic – had a few couples holding each other just a little tighter.
That same acoustic guitar took an unusual route to prominence in the next song, “Summertime Thing.” Prophet handed it to a woman at the edge of the stage, and instructed her to play G and F chords. Rapping like Beck and singing like Ray Davies through a distorted microphone, playing his beat up Telecaster with shout-outs to the band to indulge him in some “J.J. Cale riffs,” Prophet mesmerized the audience and had everybody singing the chorus without prompting. “White Night, Big City” recalled the murder of Harvey Milk, while “Sonny Liston’s Blues” offered a surreal tale of a man identified in a police line-up by a woman he loves.
Finch stepped away from her keyboards, grabbed a guitar, and sang high and plaintively on “Everything’s Going to Be All Right.” She also shined on a duet with Prophet on the McCoys’ “Sorrow” – towards its end, Sarah Borges could be heard in the audience exclaiming how much the performance reminded her of the close singing style of Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X.
The final four songs closed out the night in grand fashion. Dedicated to brothers who love and hate each other – “Ray and Dave of the Kinks; Phil and Don Everly; Dave and Phil Alvin of the Blasters” – “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” offered a sobering look at the notorious Mitchell Brothers, whose sleazy quest for fortune was only rivaled by their nightmarish falling out with each other. Prior to “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat,” Prophet argued cogently that Great Britain should embrace baseball instead of televised snooker. An ode to his favorite athlete, the song is also a communal anthem about taking nothing for granted because “Nobody knows who’ll make it home tonight.” In mid-performance, a grinning Prophet turned his microphone to the audience, who sang along with him on the chorus with the fervor of a Giants home crowd amped up at a World Series game.
Special guests Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric surprised all, taking the stage for “a song which everybody wishes they wrote,” declared Prophet. A shaking and quaking rendition of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” ensued, with guitars blazing, Finch harmonizing with Rigby and Wrecless Eric while pounding the keys, and the rhythm section of White and Rodriguez locked into an urgent Bo Diddley beat. Of course, Prophet & the Mission Express could not leave without playing their own classic, “You Did,” a riotous mix of spoken-word lyrics and double-neck guitar, punctuated by the crowd shouting the title back to the stage.
Seth Rogovoy’s review at the Rogovoy Report
CHUCK PROPHET & THE MISSION EXPRESS SET LIST
Dollar Bill Blues
Let Freedom Ring!
Doubter Out of Jesus (All Over Me)
Always a Friend to You
Just to See You Smile
Who Shot John?
Would You Love Me?
White Night, Big City
Sonny Liston’s Blues
Everything’s Going to Be All Right
The Left Hand and the Right Hand
Willie Mays Is Up at Bat
American Girl (with Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric)
SARAH BORGES SET LIST
I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song
The Day We Met
Me and Your Ghost
On the Corner