Those uninitiated to the live sounds of Prophet and the Mission Express were in for an evening far removed from the idea of the "singer-songwriter." The show captured the reckless abandon of the spirit of rock 'n' roll inspired by the streets of San Francisco, junkie poets and strip-club brothers.
As the crowd slowly made its way in from the unseasonably cool August night the Jans Project took the stage, a band that embodies the corners of the Midwest in sound and geography; it was the perfect opening for the night. The Jans' driving sound takes cues from power pop, psychedelia, the Paisley '80s and even a bit of South City, hard-driving bar rock -- a combination of performance and lyricism which is the embodiment the Midwest. Led by singer-guitarist-songwriter Nick Rudd, the band plowed its way through the set giving the audience a taste of homegrown rock, rounded out with Steve Lindstrom on guitar, Steve Scariano on bass and special guest Spencer Marquart of St. Louis' own Rough Shop sitting in on drums for Jeff Evans. Addding to that sound were the dueling chanteuses of the Briquettes: Toby Weiss and Ann Hirschfeld.
A word was not uttered as Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express took the stage and launched into their first song -- Townes Van Zandt's "Dollar Bill Blues" -- and a signal to the audience that the night would be a tour de force. The Mission Express is a well-oiled machine, there for business, but mixed with that business is the pleasure and sexuality of rock 'n' roll. It was a sound that came right from the streets of San Francisco, a sound that for many is linked to the late '60s dance-hall bands of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. And yet the sound (and the songs) also evokes a musical landscape with the harder edge of experimental artists who draw on the Beat poets who once roamed City Lights, the punks of 924 Gilman Street, the experiments at the Cryptic Corporation and the post-punk of 415 Records. Prophet's stage and vocal presence spans the influences of Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, Richard Hell, Springsteen and Joe Strummer, all of whom he channeled with his hands wrapped around his old Telecaster.
The band built up energy and new life was given to songs like "Let Freedom Ring" and "Just to See You Smile," and then Prophet brought the crowd to a '60s dance party with a Memphis soul breakdown at the end of "Wasn't I Always a Friend to You," during which he called out, "All right, DANCE PARTY!"
In that exclamation the night turned into a rock 'n' roll celebration much like that of seeing Springsteen: it was a celebration of life and streets that we walk everyday. Kevin T. White and Vicente Rodriguez provided the rhythmic power while guitar work was traded off between James DePrato and Prophet himself. But the secret was the siren of Stephanie Finch, who provided keyboard tones but also the backing romantic interest (Finch and Prophet shared the mic on a terrific duet), reminiscent of Patti Scialfa, to Prophet's songs of love, lust and loss.
The Mission Express expressed its strongest force on songs like "Automatic Blues," during which Prophet proclaimed that he "came to Earth on a rocket ship," and evoked the hard blues spirit of Muddy Waters, before stripping away all the electronics of "Doubter out of Jesus (All Over You)" and letting the band of DePrato, Rodriguez, Finch and White create a new sonic landscape. Somehow the band gave the song even more muscle than on the recorded version. An encore of Chuck Berry's underrated "Tulane" closed out the night as only a band and a performer like Chuck Prophet could.