End Of the World Blues: Chuck Prophet at the 8X10, Nov. 30
If Randy Newman had grown up not as the heir of Hollywood composers but as a scruffy garage rocker and had recorded an album about the United States in 2009, that record might have sounded like Chuck Prophet’s Let Freedom Ring. It would have had the same untrustworthy third-person narrators and bitterly comic commentators; it would have had the same perky melodies arranged in the same passed-by styles of the past; it would have had the same sharp powers of description and the same barely constrained outrage.
Whether he’s singing through the persona of a barely articulate boxer, the mother of a foolhardy child, an unemployed husband, the ominously quiet kid at school, or the couple on one last credit-card spree, Prophet inhabits each character with just the right diction, just the right guitar riff, just the right mix of anger and hope.
It’s one of the year’s best rock’n'roll albums, and it brought out a good-sized crowd to the 8X10 to see Prophet on a Monday night. The tall singer-guitarist, with his scarecrow hair, baby-cheek face, and black blazer over a black vest, began the night banging out garage-rock chord changes on his cream-colored Telecaster. He took his time getting to the vocals; assuming the voice of Sonny Liston, he finally mumbled, “I’m a man of few words, baby,” allowing his strangled guitar to say what the boxer couldn’t. Then suddenly all the noise fell away and the mumble landed on a lovely melody as Prophet/Liston sang, “What I’m trying to tell you is how much I loved you in that dress.” This moment of grace was soon swallowed up in amplifier distortion again, but its memory lingered.
So it went all night, moments of unguarded feeling and melody would surface amid the roiling waves like strange deep-sea creatures, only to submerge again. His choice of cover songs included Iggy Pop’s sardonic “I’m Bored” but also Bruce Springsteen’s valentine, “For You.” His choice of his old songs included both an anthem of alienation, “Automatic Blues,” and an anthem of possibility, “Age of Miracles.”
The selections from the new album included the dystopian title track, a vision of capitalism run amok: “Let there be markets,” he snarled over a knotty guitar riff, “let ‘em run wild/ all the lost brothers can drink themselves blind.” But he also sang the new album’s best song, “You and Me Baby (Holding On),” named after a Newman number and borrowing Newman’s curdled Tin Pan Alley delivery. Prophet began bleakly, “Marriage on the skids and the folks ain’t doing well,” but rallied for the chorus, singing, “We can still dream like it’s Saturday night/ we’re holding on,” to a major-chord glimpse of sunshine.
The evening was marred by Prophet’s constant bickering with the soundman about the monitors, but his backing band (guitarist James DePrato, bassist Kevin White, drummer Todd Roper and keyboardist/singer/wife Stephanie Finch) sounded terrific in the house speakers whenever a song finally started. The highlight of the evening came early: a rampaging, hook-laden version of “Always a Friend,” the tune Prophet co-wrote for Alejandro Escovedo’s album last year—the best Rolling Stones song of the decade.