Sunday, May 18, 2003

Brainy Prophet evokes musical kaleidoscope

By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some Americana acts seek a sort of roots-rock purity by singing songs full of rustic imagery and wearing cowboy clothes. Others are attached to the vaguely defined genre because no other tags do the job.Chuck Prophet falls into the latter category. Chuck Prophet kills Americana dead.

Prophet, a hero in roots-rock circles for his stint in the cult-favorite band Green on Red and his subsequent solo career, transcends the measly Americana tag.

The California singer-songwriter and his band Mission Express put on a 90-minute performance at the Southgate House Thursday that flaunted both brains and ability to spare.

Prophet's guitar playing evoked a kaleidoscopic jukebox of soul, blues, surf and rockabilly, not just the generic twang-and-roll favored by most roots rockers.

All those styles add up to Americana, but Prophet has the smarts to avoid cliche by dirtying up the process with effects pedals, distorted vocals and wife Stephanie Finch's keyboards. In the end, Prophet came off like a post-modern Billy Swan - a neo-neo-rockabilly for these musically over-categorized times.

Prophet's guitar playing was mesmerizing, and in combination with Finch's keyboard, which was often locked in trash-organ mode, the band bubbled with that gleeful Swan-styled sound at the top.

The rhythm section was also first-rate, with Rob Douglas on bass and Bob Dylan alumnus Winston Watson on drums.

If there was one shortcoming, it was Prophet's voice. It's no match for his guitar, but it got the job done on such highlights as the sly "I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See," the rockabilly rave-up "Elouise," and the encore ballad "No Other Love."

Local roots outfit Pike 27 opened. Dave Purcell's crew is about a year into its revamped lineup of guitarist George Cunningham, drummer Tom Huesman, multi-instrumentalist Mark Messerly and bassist Sean Rhiney, and the change is certainly an upgrade.

Prophet agrees, at least in the case of Cunningham.

"That guitar player was killer," Prophet said. "I had to go hide in the back, he was so scary."


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