by Roy Kasten
Chuck Prophet | The Jans Project
March 22, 2012
In Austin a few days before his semi-annual stop in St. Louis, Chuck Prophet sat outside a Mexican restaurant and said, "You know, I think we finally cracked that town."
Maybe. Or maybe it will take another twenty years. Or as he recently tweeted from the road: "It's on its way. The whole deal. The money and all that good stuff. It might take 200 years, but it's coming. Wake me up when it gets here."
If the crowd passed muster but still numbered shy of what anyone with a stake in the night would have hoped for, the hundred or so in attendance at Off Broadway (3509 Lemp Avenue, 314-773-3363) for the return of Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express witnessed a rock & roll club show the way it should be: On the loose and in the pocket at once, fast and dirty and funny as shit, anchored in songs that never grow old, a hundred classic rock & roll riffs and grooves channeled through an idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind voice, with a Telecaster twanging and growling and looking like it had survived the Crimean War. And all of it mixed loud and clear and with a bass that rumbled across the floorboards.
Opening up the evening was the Jans Project, featuring veteran bassist Steve Scariano (of the Love Experts, for starters) and college-day, out-of-town friends Jeff Evans, Steve Lindstrom and Nick Rudd. The band has recently released an EP that focuses its love of the British Invasion, especially the Kinks, '70s CBGB's rock ala Television, and a bit of glam, ala T Rex. Glamorous isn't the first word that comes to mind with this concise-and-hooky-Tele-and-Strat-guitar-rock band, though the word fits its guest backup singers, the Briquettes (aka Toby Weiss and Kate Eddens), who leant spunky and airy harmonies to a few numbers on stage. A lot of bands in town would have loved to have opened for Prophet; on this Thursday, the Jans Project sounded like the right choice.
"Let's get to work!" the headliner called out. "Give me a G. Give me another G!" And the Mission Express was off, with "Storm Across the Sea" from what may still be Prophet's defining solo album, 2002's No Other Love, an album full of songs in the people's key and full of what makes Prophet so essential. He knows his musical debts, but he's never just playing a style or a genre. He's long since mastered them and he's been long stamping them all with his weird and charming bohemian soul, from his paperboy cap to the pinstripe vest that fits too tight to his cuffed jeans showing argyle socks. The dude is cool and heavy and absolutely happy and at home on stage.
Like Dylan, whose surreal electric blues he echoed on the set's second song, "Balinese Dancer," this is just who he is and what he does -- and he's going to have as much fun as he can doing it. After another old song, "Look Both Ways" (from his first solo album Brother Aldo "released on a shy label"), he paid his respects to Whitney Houston with a quick instrumental run-through of "I Will Always Love You," and then charged into "Castro Halloween," the first of a suite of songs from the new San Francisco-based album Temple Beautiful. The mostly pared-down rock & roll of those songs, given just enough texture from partner Stephanie Finch's backup vocals and keys, were translated precisely on stage.
Prophet has described his love for his hometown in the language of addiction; it's not just a figure of speech. He knows what it's like to be a junkie, and though his strongest hit these days is a Diet Coke, the hunger and need and feeling of a fix can still seep through his sound and songs. At least that's the way he made the hard Stonesy rocker "Sonny Liston's Blues" sound on this night, or the way he gave the acoustic ballad "Would You Love Me?" an extra tinge of loss, or the way he turned two of his quasi hits, "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" and "Always a Friend" (a co-write with fellow ex-offender Alejandro Escovedo), into wild and desperate but ultimately so-fully-in-the-moment moments.
"I asked the band if we should do an encore," Prophet smiled. "Stephanie said it was more than you deserved." She didn't say that and he didn't mean it - but in a way, it was true enough, as the instrumental "Pipeline" surfed us on out. No one deserves a great rock & roll show, so let's savor our good fortune when and while we can.
Personal Bias: I shot smack with Prophet behind an In-N-Out Burger at 3 a.m. and then surfed Lunada Bay with him as the sun came up. Or maybe I've just loved every single one of his records for the last twenty-odd years. You want something more like objectivity? Let me Google that for you.
Overheard: "Come on up here," Prophet yelled midway through the set, pointing at the intern helping out at the soundboard. The young man climbed on stage with the temerity of a B+ student marking his first trip to the headmaster's office. "You got a vice grip for this mic stand?" Nobody hazes like Chuck Prophet.
Chuck Prophet Setlist:
Storm Across the Sea
Look Both Ways
The Left Hand and the Right Hand
Willie Mays Is Up at Bat
White Night, Big City
Sonny Liston's Blues
Would You Love Me?
I Felt Like Jesus
Little Girl, Little Boy
Tina Goodbye (Stephanie Finch song)
You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)
I'm Not Talking (The Yardbirds)
Always a Friend (Alejandro Escovedo, co-written with Prophet)
Pipeline (The Chantays)