Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.
Chuck Prophet is the classic “under the radar” artist. He’s a musician who has been recording for nearly 30 years – first with Green on Red, a band that seems more respected in its absence than it was recognized during its existence, and then as a solo act, in which a small handful of his impressive songs have barely nudged into public consciousness. He has been a successful songwriter for hire, a sought-after sideman, and has a number of higher-profile admirers. His music is generally well reviewed, and he tours regularly and successfully. Although we at Cover Me are not privy to his tax returns, it is probably safe to say that he makes a pretty good living at the music thing, but that he isn’t using hundreds to light his smokes.
Prophet was born in 1963, in Whittier, California, the boyhood home of Richard Nixon, but moved to San Francisco before joining up with Arizonans Green on Red in 1985, in time for that band’s Gas Food Lodging album. He stayed with Green on Red until the band’s breakup in 1992, influencing its music more and more. But before Green on Red called it a day, Prophet released his first solo album, 1990’s Brother Aldo, which featured a roots-rock sound and Prophet’s distinctive laconic vocal style, described on his website as a “slack-jawed drawl.” It sounds quite good, considering it apparently cost all of $800 to record. Over the next few years, as his songwriting matured, Prophet released albums that displayed an expanded musical palette, including both straight-ahead rock and electronic effects.
No Other Love, released in 2002, was something of a breakthrough, showcasing Prophet’s ability to write and perform catchy, intelligent songs that mixed genres and styles effortlessly. Its mix of country, psychedelia, rock, blues, and electronica set the template for some of the strongest work of his career, and led to Prophet opening for Lucinda Williams. Its highlights included the dreamy “Summertime Thing,” and the title track, covered by Heart in a version that was later included in the soundtrack to the TV show The L Word. The maybe even better Age of Miracles was next, chock full of great songs, including “Just To See You Smile,” which would have been a hit single in an alternative universe of discerning music consumers, and the atmospheric and odd “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp).”
A couple of years later, Prophet released another fine album of originals, Soap and Water, and Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams, a limited edition recreation of Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams of You album (we’ll get back to that later). An overtly political album recorded in Mexico City, ¡Let Freedom Ring! (featuring former E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter) got its message across with a more stripped-down sound, but without forgetting to rock. Prophet returned to his regular band, the Mission Express, for his most recent release, Temple Beautiful, a loose concept album about San Francisco, which has been compared to Lou Reed’s New York for its ability to capture the essence of the city.
That’s all well and good, you may be asking, but where are the covers? Other than the Waylon Jennings album, and one pretty obscure cover on his first album, Prophet’s studio albums are showcases for his idiosyncratic original songwriting. But, like so many artists who profess broad musical influences (and whose music shows the effects of these influences), he often chooses a cover or two to play live. We will not discuss here the full cover show of the Clash’s London Calling, because Cover Me already did that. But if you stick around (and even if you won’t, for that matter), we will not only discuss the studio covers, but a tasty and diverse selection of live ones.
Chuck Prophet – Queen Bee (Cowboy Jack Clement cover)
On his debut as a solo artist, Brother Aldo, Prophet included a single cover, “Queen Bee.” He didn’t cover any of the famous blues songs by that name—no John Lee Hooker, no Slim Harpo, no Koko Taylor, no Taj Mahal. He didn’t cover Grand Funk Railroad. And he certainly didn’t cover Barbra Streisand. Instead, he covered a song by Cowboy Jack Clement, a musician, songwriter, producer, and engineer who worked at Sun Records and with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, U2, Townes Van Zandt and the King of the Polka himself, Frankie Yankovic. Prophet’s cover is a sweet duet sung with his wife, Stephanie Finch. How the cover stacks up to the original will have to be a mystery, since the song is so obscure that I have been unable to find a version to stream, download or watch on YouTube.
Chuck Prophet – Tulane (Chuck Berry cover)
Seeing as Prophet is an astute student of rock ‘n’ roll and an incredible guitarist, it is not surprising that he has covered Chuck Berry. It is somewhat of a surprise that he picked this song, “Tulane,” often considered Berry’s last great song (possibly because it sounds a great deal like Berry’s early great songs). It is not one of the master’s best known works, as it was released in 1970, when Berry was already considered an “oldies” act and had just finished an artistically and commercially unsuccessful stint on the Mercury label. However, its subject matter – the travails of two drug dealers on the run from the police – was certainly a contemporary issue. Prophet’s cover is faithful to the original, for a very good reason: you don’t mess with Chuck Berry.
Chuck Prophet – Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (Waylon Jennings cover)
The recording studio environment often leads to the unexpected. Whether it is a new song, a new sound, an unusual collaboration, band members fighting, or an experiment, what is planned often isn’t what emerges. According to musician John Murry, he, along with Prophet, Finch and a bunch of others, got locked into the Closer Recording Studios in San Francisco and listened to Waylon Jennings’ album Dreaming My Dreams of You over and over and over. Fueled by beer and peanut butter, Prophet demanded that they record covers of every song on the album, in order. And, as the Prophet demanded, so it was done. Only 1000 copies of the album were released on Murry’s label, with exclusive handmade cover art. This song, one of the few written by Jennings for the album (which also includes a Cowboy Jack Clements tune), is a scathing attack on the fluffy commercial country music and “rhinestone suits and big shiny cars” which Jennings and his fellow “outlaws” had rejected in favor of the more gritty authenticity symbolized by Hank Williams. The original is a pretty straightforward country-rock song; Prophet and friends more than double its length by slowing it down and adding some atmospherics and a long guitar solo. The cover sounds like a solid Chuck Prophet song, although there is certainly merit to the concision of the original.
Chuck Prophet – Shake Some Action (Flamin’ Groovies cover)
If someone put a gun to your head and asked you what was the official song of San Francisco, you probably would guess “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and you would be partially correct – technically, it’s the city’s official ballad. Another song, “San Francisco,” the title track from a 1936 movie starring Jeannette McDonald and Clark Gable, has been declared the Official Song. Chuck Prophet, however, introduced this cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ best-known song as the “National Anthem of San Francisco.” The Flamin’ Groovies, a band that started in the ’60s to critical acclaim but public indifference, soldiered on into the ’80s and are often considered one of those obscure bands that had an oversized influence on the punk and new wave movement. This cover, recorded live in 2012, is true to the original’s Dave Edmunds-produced power-pop style, and even doubles down with some cheesy ’80s organ. Apparently, Prophet is fond of declaring songs “national anthems” — here is a live cover of the Chantays’ much-covered surf-rock classic “Pipeline,” apparently the national anthem of California, although it was written more than a century after the capitulation of the Republic of California to U.S. forces and the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga.
Chuck Prophet – Sister Lost Soul (Alejandro Escovedo cover)
In the past few years, Alejandro Escovedo, another unjustly unappreciated artist (but not on this blog, or by Bruce Springsteen) has released a run of great albums with songs mostly co-written with Prophet. Here’s Prophet’s cover of one of those songs, the wistful “Sister Lost Soul.” Recently, Escovedo posted the following on his Facebook page:
I believe more in minimalism now than I ever have. Things have become simpler, I think. I have a songwriting partner now, too, which has changed the way I make records. Chuck Prophet and I have written my last three albums together, or most of them. So his influence has changed the way the songs sound.
And he also posted this quote from Prophet:
When Al and I get in the same room, it’s like touching two live wires together. It’s just sort of electric. So when he said a few years ago, during a tour we did together, that he wanted me to help him wrestle a new album to the ground, I said sure. It sounded like fun.
Chuck Prophet – Boogie Shoes (K.C. & The Sunshine Band cover)
We close with the unexpected. None of the covers highlighted here would surprise anyone familiar with Prophet’s recorded output. But it is hard to imagine that ’70s disco had much of an influence on him. And yet, from a live performance in 2006, here is a cover of K.C. & The Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes,” featuring Chuck and some synthesized drums. It appears, in fact, to be a song that he enjoys playing. Here’s a version with the Mission Express and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck during a soundcheck early in 2013.