LIVE: Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express @ Club Helsinki, 11/22/14
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Backed by one of the best bands on the live circuit, the Mission Express, Prophet was in impeccable form. It didn’t take much coaxing to get the dance floor filled given the one-two-three opening combo of Lou Reed’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart” Prophet’s irresistible “Countrified Inner City Technological Man” from Night Surfer, his excellent new album on Yep Roc Records, and the sincerely cool “I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I Meet” from 2002’s No Other Love. Just to test the audience’s vocal talents, he even dipped into the CCR catalog for “Lodi,” and the crowd was fully engaged in a sing-along.
“Wish Me Luck,” from the new album, brimmed with quirky affirmation: “My life is an experiment/ That doesn’t prove a thing/ I wake up every morning/Wondering what the day will bring/ Then I throw open the windows/ I fill up both my lungs/ And I shout, ‘Look out all you losers–/Here I come!’ ” During the chorus, Prophet gestured to the loud crowd to “wish me luck/ even if you don’t mean it!”, and they did. The rock and roll energy never subsided. “Ford Econoline” was a clap-along, stomp-your-feet ode to simpler times; Stephanie Finch even brought a bit of a ? & the Mysterians vibe to her keyboard approach. “Just to See You Smile,” dedicated to the ladies in the house, sounded like a lost Kinks gem with some cool guitar banter between Prophet and James DePrato.
Following a prom-like instrumental from the 1950s (Note: the title escapes me), Prophet asked Club Helsinki if it was ready for a “Hudson Valley dance contest,” then hit the floor running with a rendition of Alex Chilton’s classic “Bangkok” that had folks twisting their November blahs away. Finch joined her husband center stage to show off their own dance moves during “Little Girl, Little Boy,” an endearing duet from 2012’s Temple Beautiful.
“It’s a freak show and a half!” announced Prophet about his hometown’s holiday tradition in “Castro Halloween,” a powerful showcase for the talented rhythm section of Kevin White (bass) and Vicente Rodriguez (drums). Prophet dedicated “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” to all the brothers in the world, “especially Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks,” who still cannot seem to make peace.
Epic takes of “Temple Beautiful,” a groovy sing-along, and “Who Shot John”, a guitars-a-blazing, in-the-street saga akin to “Hey Joe,” would have left mere mortals spent, but not this group. Finch donned an orange Telecaster for “Different Drum,” a heartfelt tribute to Linda Ronstadt that featured some fine backing vocals by Rodriguez and a tasty solo by Prophet. “Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold),” another highlight of the new album, mixed
Prophet’s acoustic guitar with DePrato’s soaring electric 12-string to uptempo perfection. “Summertime Thing” captured the oceanside vibe of California, echoey vocals and ethereal slide fills stretched to the max, all prompting Prophet to exclaim, “Wow!” at the end. “White Night Big City” sounded like a mixture of David Bowie and the Sir Douglas Quintet, creepy and soulful all at once. Prophet roamed into the crowd, Telecaster in hand and shouting like a coach, during a portion of “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat,” a hook-filled ode to living in the moment that had the entire venue chanting the melodic line like they were in attendance at this year’s World Series.
After a couple of minutes of the audience clamoring for an encore, Prophet and the Mission Express returned for a riveting two-song encore. He spoke of going to see six bands play the Temple Beautiful in San Francisco at age 15, and being awe-struck by the Flamin’ Groovies, whose “Shake This Action” (“the Bay Area anthem!” quipped Prophet) got a rave-up treatment at Club Helsinki. “This song could send some of you old-timers into cardiac arrest – so, look inside yourself and ask some hard questions!” announced Prophet before an astonishingly funky, extended “You Did” closed out the evening.
Opener John Murry appeared to be smack dab in the middle of some maelstrom. He did not look well at all. He stumbled and mumbled through seven songs mainly drawn from his debut The Graceless Age, his acclaimed 2013 debut that detailed his travails with drugs and subsequent recovery. Tuning his guitar seemed an arduous, even bothersome task ,and Murry lashed out profanely at the shocked audience, who probably felt more pity and unease than resentment at that point for whatever he was going through. Even a sympathetic assist from DePrato and White of the Mission Express for a couple of songs fell short of redeeming the set.
One can only hope to see Murry in a better state of mind the next time around, armed with songs that veteran music journalist David Fricke of Rolling Stone has called “consistently great and straight in [their] lyrical candor and spectral-country comfort.”
Seth Rogovoy’s review at the Rogovoy Report
CHUCK PROPHET & THE MISSION EXPRESS SET LIST
Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart (Lou Reed)
Countrified Inner City Technological Man
I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I Meet
Lodi (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Wish Me Luck
Just to See You Smile
??? (instrumental from late 1950s)
Bangkok (Alex Chilton)
Little Girl, Little Boy
The Left Hand and the Right Hand
Who Shot John
Different Drum (the Stone Ponys)
Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)
White Night, Big City
Willie Mays Is Up at Bat
Shake Some Action (the Flamin’ Groovies)