Chuck Prophet performs at Union Stage on Jan. 7, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Chuck Prophet seemed excited to be playing live again after a few years off the road. At Union Stage recently, he attacked his set with verve and displayed his trademark wry humor. Expressing his gratitude to the audience, he said, “There’s probably 17 places you could hear live music just in this mall.” I’d never really thought about it, but I guess The Wharf in Southwest DC is a mall, isn’t it?
In the age of streaming, musicians depend on touring for their livelihood, and they all faced challenges when the pandemic forced them off the road. On top of this, Chuck also had to deal with a diagnosis of cancer. Fortunately, following treatment, he was declared cancer-free, a fact that all of us who’ve followed him over the years are very glad to hear.
Though not a household name, Prophet is a deeply respected collaborator who is often sought out as a cowriter. Introducing “Her Town Now” during his opening set on Jan. 7, Boston-based artist Mark Erelli mentioned he wrote it with Chuck a few years ago. Prophet cowrote the album Real Animal with esteemed roots musician Alejandro Escovedo, and he’s worked extensively with Austin-based country singer Kelly Willis. He made up part of the collective Raisins in the Sun, along with legendary producer Jim Dickinson (whose piano playing can be heard on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses) and singer-songwriter Jules Shear (just to name a few). He spent most of 1997 as a staff writer in Nashville, and his compositions have been recorded by Solomon Burke and Bruce Springsteen.
At Union Stage on Saturday, Chuck played in a trio with his wife and musical partner, Stephanie Finch, on keys and acoustic guitar and drummer Vicente Rodriguez. (The trio played at Jammin’ Java in the Virginia suburbs on the following night.) Toward the end of the show, Chuck joked that, if someone bought 1,000 CDs, they could take Vicente home. Someone offered Chuck a granola bar for Vicente, to which he replied, “Do I look like I eat granola bars?” This begs the question, “What do people who eat granola bars look like?” He continued, “I eat raw eggs to do this shit!” AND this begs the question, would Chuck have sold his drummer for a dozen eggs?
I learned something new about the man during his set. For some reason, I thought he came out of Tucson, Arizona. He is, in fact, a native Californian, hailing from Whitter. As he told the audience before playing “Nixonland” — which appears on his latest album, 2020’s The Land That Time Forgot (The title comes from another track he included in his set, “High As Johnny Thunders,” a tribute to the late member of the New York Dolls, who he said “had the whole package.” Someone asked how high Johnny Thunders was, and Chuck answered, “Pretty high;” Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth corroborates this in her memoir, Girl In A Band, though her take is more negative) — Richard Nixon also came from Whittier. In what he described as “a traumatic experience I had as a child,” his class took a field trip to the late President’s original law office. (This seems doesn’t sound especially traumatic, and I’d be happy to trade the numerous beatings I took growing up.) In the years since, the building was demolished to make room for new construction, which upset many people, as “there are a lot of crazy Republicans in Orange County.” This begs the question, is there a place where the Republicans aren’t crazy? Chuck added that a few bricks were saved.
Watch the official music video for “Nixonland” by Chuck Prophet on YouTube:
For several decades, Chuck has made his home in San Francisco, and the city has been his muse. His 2012 album, Temple Beautiful, told the stories of its characters. “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” recounts the tale of two brothers whose enterprises ranged over the less-than-fully-legitimate (*cough*, organized crime), and whose-once close relationship drifted apart.
After more than a decade of making solo albums — following his tenure with the Paisley Underground band Green On Red — a breakthrough came with his 2002 record, No Other Love, when he had something of a hit with “Summertime Thing,” which he calls “a seasonal favorite.” That’s technically true, but, normally when people say that, they’re about to bust out something that has to do with the current season. After this album came out, he scored an opening slot on tour with Lucinda Williams.
A number of songs in Chuck’s catalogue directly reference Jesus. He played one of these, “Doubter Out Of Jesus,” on the Letterman show. A few days later, his mom called him to say it’s not her favorite of his songs. He noted his mother attends mass “every day.” Having that large religious presence while growing up clearly influenced — and continues to influence — his creative work. (When he invited requests late in the set, someone asked for “Jesus Was A Social Drinker.” That one didn’t make it into the set, but “I Felt Like Jesus” did. ) Of course, this makes him everyone else in the creative fields; to varying extents and in different ways, we’re all working out issues with our parents. I know I am!
People who make their living on the road can develop an attachment to their mode of transportation. “Ford Econoline,” not to be confused with the Nancy Griffith song of the same name, celebrates “the greatest thing to come out of Detroit next to Iggy Pop and the Soda.” A little bit of unsolicited advice: if you ever meet Iggy Pop, and you want him to remember you, ask, “Is Iggy short for Iguana?” I guarantee he’s never heard that before, and he’d remember it.
Watch the official music video for “Ford Econoline” by Chuck Prophet on YouTube:
Chuck’s music has been lumped into Americana, and there’s nothing more American than baseball. It’s also true that writing about baseball is much easier than writing about a faster-paced sport with few breaks in the action like basketball or hockey, or football, which, though it has breaks, has 22 players on the field. My writing mentor suggested to me that “baseball stories are their own genre.” With “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat,” Chuck makes own his distinctive contribution to that genre.
The set kicked off with “Tell Me Anything (Turn To Gold).” After “Wish Me Luck,” Prophet told the audience they were three people playing instruments, “no backing tracks, no gimmicks.” But, I would ask, is the absence of gimmicks itself a gimmick? That’s one to think about. The set also included “Love Is The Only Thing,” “Willie and Nillie,” “Pin A Rose On Me,” “Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” “He Came From So Far Away,” and “Marathon.” Switching from the keys to guitar, Stephanie did a song, with Chuck taking up the electric guitar. He joked about ending the set with a song with a message, “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp).” For his encore, he played “Bad Year For Rock ‘N Roll,” a song he write about the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, and Tom Petty in 2017.
Mark Erelli, who opened the show, faced struggles of his own the last few years; he was diagnosed with a condition that will lead to the loss of his eyesight. Appropriately, he titled his last album, “Blindsided,” and he included the title cut in his set. Like Chuck, he, too felt the loss of Tom Petty, writing “A Little Kindness” the night he died. He described this time as “not a high point,” referencing the country’s deep divisions following the election of our previous president. (Chuck made his own jab at this situation, mentioning how DC has comedy locked up.)
Mark has a new record, funded through Kickstarter, coming out next month. The album, he explained, deals with “existential questions,” but “we can rock while we explore them.” A single from that, “Up Against The Night,” is streaming now, and Mark will be coming back through DC later this year behind the album. Mark’s set began with “The River Always Wins” and included “Love You Better,” and “Look Up,” and closed with “Is It Enough.” This was my second time seeing Mark — he opened for Lori McKenna in her last appearance in the area — and he’s impressed me both times.
Here are some photos of Chuck Prophet performing at Union Stage on Jan. 7, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.