Roots-rocker Chuck Prophet released one of the best discs of 2004 with his atmospheric and wry Age of Miracles on New West records. The disc received significant critical praise and made a number of best of lists, including my own Top 10.
But it wasn’t the only record released by the former Green on Red guitarist. Prophet also issued (well, reissued, actually) a recording of two San Francisco performances from 2000, a compact disc that showed him and his band, the Mission Express, in fine form and in full command of their mix of blues, country, folk, and whatever else the West Coast musician feels like tossing in.
Turn the Pigeons Loose documents Prophet’s performance at the Downtown Refugee Yard Sale Relocation Fundraiser Cook Off in November and at Slims in April. The sound is crisp and Prophet is loose, joking with the crowd and running through a set that draws heavily from his critically acclaimed 2000 disc, The Hurting Business and that samples from his previous four solo records.
It is an album, first and foremost, that features Prophet’s stellar guitar playing. I’m not talking about pyrotechnic solos, but rather expert fills and economical solos that are more likely to conjure memories of Robbie Robertson or George Harrison than Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix. Prophet, as Denise Sullivan writes on allmusic (www.allmusic.com), is probably the least-heralded guitarist of the 1980s and 1990s. But he is as good as most of his more widely known and praised peers, a mature player who understands how to make his instrument serve his songwriting. Each of the 13 songs on the disc pushes the concert energy forward, which is the mark of a powerful live performer — and the mark of a good live disc.
“La Paloma” opens the disc with gusto, a fast-paced country-blues shuffle that rides atop Rob Douglas’ pumping based and Prophet’s own slinky, honky tonk guitar fills. His guitar highlights the pain and loss at the center of “You Been Gone”, the solo at the song’s center like an exclamation point. “God’s Arms” and the equally strong “Shore Patrol” (listed as a soundcheck) are built on Steve Finch’s organ and a crunching rhythm guitar. Beyond the organ, however, the songs could not be more different. “God’s Arms” is a mid-tempo rocker that reminds me of an early Steve Earle composition, with a crunching rhythm guitar and sneaky little guitar fills that punctuate the rhythm. “Shore Patrol” is more of a driving rocker that features more aggressive lead guitar work.
On the slower cuts, like the bluesy “Homemade Blood” and “Dyin’ All Young”, he allows Finch’s organ to lead the musical attack. The solo on “Homemade Blood” rips open the song, building off several sustains, capturing the song’s essential darkness, while the jazzy “Dyin’ All Young” features an appropriately wiry solo.
Then there is the funky, rocking “Credit”, the disc’s central cut, a testy demand for respect (and the monetary kind of credit) that musically echoes the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”. Prophet draws the song out, teasing the crowd, boasting, jiving. And the crowd comes along for the ride.
Prophet’s voice somehow mixes elements of Tom Petty, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan, a baritone of narrow range that sometimes edges into little more than talking. And yet, this limited baritone (a phrase that has been used to describe Reed’s voice) seems elastic, almost rubbery. When he sings “Diamond Jim”, a funky blues, he alternately spits out the vocal and slurs it, then runs it through a fuzz box, pulling back against the rhythm like a jazz singer.
Through his phrasing, the way he seems to chew on the lines like he’s chewing on gum that is just at the point of loosing its flavor, savoring and slurring across the syllables, he finds a way — as his vocal forebears did — to rise above what could have been a limitation.
Go back to “Credit”, with its odd yawps interspersed with a boastful, almost preacherly spiel about Chuck Prophet and his music. It is a performance that shows Prophet stretching and redefining his approach as he sings, smashing expectations and pushing past limitations as he goes.
Overall, Turn the Pigeons Loose is one of those live discs that embellish on an artist’s reputation — or at least should.