Chuck Prophet And The Mission Express

I know plenty of people who claim that Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express are the best live band in the world, and it’s something I’d find it hard to argue with. There are certain bands that you can see again and again and never grow tired of, and the Mission Express certainly fit that description. I’ve seen them more than thirty times, often doing very similar sets, yet the excitement never wanes. The current line-up features, from left to right, Stephanie Finch on keyboards, James DePrato on guitar (depending on the stage configuration, he might either be to the right or left of the front man). At the back is drummer Vicente Rodriguez and next to him, always at the rear of the stage, never the front, is bassist Kevin T. White. Front and centre will always be Chuck Prophet but he will always be in a line with the others, never projected forward as the traditional front man. To his audiences, he will always be the supreme entertainer. When I first came across the Mission Express, it was a different line-up. On rhythm guitar was the affable Tom Heyman, the drummer was Todd Roper from the band Cake, but the other three were in place. A Mission Express without Kevin T. White is simply unthinkable, his bass playing being the anchor which holds together the music. A beatific smile permanently on his features and a signature pork pie hat forever on his head, Kevin is the bedrock of the Mission Express, the kind of person you trust with your life. He lives outside San Francisco with his delightful wife Lisa and plays with countless other bands. When the Mission Express is off the road, he’s in permanent demand. Vicente is the drummer who succeeded a series of previous incumbents, who in recent years have included Kyle Caprista and Paul Taylor. Vicente has survived numerous world tours and now is as much of a Mission Express institution as Kevin and second guitarist James de Prato. James is a model of professionalism and his massive stage presence has helped develop some of the Mission Express’s finest songs into irresistible Thin Lizzy-style twin lead workouts. Stephanie Finch is often referred to as the power behind the music. She tends to have her keyboard positioned at right angles to stage front, which enables her to keep an eye on what is going on and crucially, to be ready at any moment to interact with her husband’s stage activities. She tends to look quite serious and inscrutable but she’ll suddenly burst into the most glorious smile when something particularly musically infectious occurs. I’ve never encountered a greater front person than Chuck Prophet. I knew I was going to like him just on the basis of his name, which encapsulates the coolness which he naturally possesses. How can we describe him? With the excellent hair that all rock stars require, a seemingly casual yet perfect wardrobe sense, a unique and expansive sense of humour plus, of course, towering guitar playing ability, he holds the eye of the audience riveted throughout any set. You wouldn’t say he has a brilliant voice in a conventional rock sense, yet he sings in a way that could never be mistaken for anybody else. A typical Mission Express set will be close on two hours and will normally feature about 50 percent new songs from whatever album the band is touring at the time. They tend to release an album every two years and tour around the world twice for each release. The remaining songs will be Prophet classics, selected according to his mood. The only two that are more or less guaranteed to be played are Summertime Thing and You Did, both featuring the guitar pyrotechnics for which Chuck is renowned and revered. How to describe them? Well, they’re made from his trademark slightly battered Telecaster and the soloing seemingly owes no debts to any guitar style that has gone before, no blues clichés, no twiddly-diddly rock showing off, just the perfect spattering of notes in a way that beguiles the audience and hits the soul in a deeply satisfying way. Sure, he sweats, jerks and grimaces like all good lead guitarists should, but not in a way that is in any way derivative or inviting comparison with anyone else. Unlike many in his position, fronting a band that plays his own compositions, Chuck is funny. Some in the audience are there to connect with his stories and pronouncements almost as much as for the music. No two nights will ever be the same, but certain institutions can never be omitted, such as the warning before You Did that anyone with a weak heart condition should leave the room before the song commences. My favourite Chuck show-opening gambit was from the Temple Beautiful tour, where he would leap on stage, cast his eye around whatever inevitably seedy venue they were performing in, and pronounce, “It’s great to be back in (insert the venue name). If these walls could speak they’d say … ‘Clean me, it’s f****** dirty in here’”.
Our shows with Chuck Prophet however have never been entirely straightforward. The first time we put him on at the Railway, the show was marred by the presence of a complete maniac in the audience. We had over-filled the venue and this guy was pressed right against the low stage at the front, straight in front of Chuck. I remember him being a small bloke, dressed incongruously in a black suit. He decided to spend the entire evening heckling, not necessarily in a nasty way but shouting incomprehensible stuff into Chuck’s face throughout the set. Not being used to such behaviour, we had no security in place and I had to dispatch my brave wife to lure this guy away from the front and get him out of the room, whereupon the landlord ejected him into the car park.
Another day I remember with mixed feelings was a “double show”, during which the Mission Express played two shows in one day at the same venue. A friend told me that some close friends of his were getting married that day and that their greatest wish would be to bring all their guests to the afternoon show. It sounded like a great idea, but what I hadn’t realised was that a lot of drinking had already gone on before they arrived. Some of the guests were quite rowdy, but Chuck coped with it all in true professional style, inviting the happy couple on stage to waltz through a rendition of “Then He Kissed Me”. Truth to tell, the bride was paralytic, and before long, she was annoying members of the audience, and one in particular who confronted her. I feared a wedding brawl was about to break out, but Birgit, peacemaker supreme, managed to defuse it. The audience member demanded a refund, which I granted with painful reluctance.
I don’t know what it is with Chuck, but when we put him on in a venue in Southampton, something awful happened. After the show, his priceless notebook containing lyrics, notes, set lists and other vital material was stolen from the stage. It absolutely ruined an otherwise happy evening and Chuck, of course, was devastated. I was certain that it would never be returned but amazingly, two weeks layer, someone slipped into the venue and left it on the bar in a plain package. The relief was overwhelming. I guess the person who took it had a conscience after all or maybe had just been drunk and realised what a stupid and cruel thing it had been to do.
It was at yet another Chuck show, this time in the Talking Heads in Southampton, that we nearly had our first murder. The support act was Bob Frank and John Murry, performing, appropriately, a set of murder ballads. Chuck had a particularly stern tour manager, who decided that Bob and John were over-running. Tactlessly, he simply pulled the plug on them, even though they were going down a storm. Within moments, John Murry had the roadie up against the wall with his hands round his throat. Of course he was pulled off but what were we to make of it? Well, uncharacteristically, I sided with John. He’d been unprofessionally treated and was also (though I didn’t know it at the time) in the throes of a terrible heroin addiction. Now that John is my friend, a friendly, peaceful, unaddicted and fiercely intelligent artist, we laugh about it, but it was hairy for a moment!
The reason for this series of shows in Southampton was an attempt to increase the size of the audience. The Railway was filled to capacity but every time we did a show in Southampton in a bigger venue, the numbers stubbornly refused to go up. That’s why we eventually ended up doing the two shows in one day at the Railway. The final Southampton show was the one I remember with least pleasure. In the dressing room, the band was accompanied by a hanger-on who was taking photographs. In contrast to the charming band members, this person behaved in a demanding manner, ordering a bottle of red wine on my tab without asking me and complaining bitterly when they ran out of milk for tea, claiming I had not provided enough. That might have been true but there was a small convenience store just a few paces away and it might have been simpler just to go and buy a bottle of milk rather than kicking up a fuss. Then, unbelievably, there was yet another maniac in the audience, this time a young guy who was over-enthusiastically dancing around and knocking into people. One of my regulars came up to me in an absolute rage demanding that I do something about it or he would sort it out himself. From the look in his eye, I assumed a brawl would be in the offing, but in the nick of time, the ever-professional Chuck engaged the troublemaker in conversation and ended up actually handing over his acoustic guitar for the guy to strum a few chords on it mid-set. As audience interaction goes, that was a hard one to beat.
Normally the band stay at our house but Chuck and Stephanie prefer hotel accommodation, fully understandable and very sensible. Not even that has always been straightforward, though. On the occasion when Stephanie Finch and the Company Men played at the Railway, we emerged after a beautiful musical evening to find that it had been snowing outside during the performance. Chuck and Stephanie’s hotel was the Travelodge in Eastleigh, to where Birgit managed to transport them, just before the blanket of snow would have made it impossible. In the morning I drove over to collect them for breakfast, my small car slipping and sliding all over the road and threatening to crash into trees. I’m not sure how we made it. The result was an extended stay and a cancelled show the next day, as road conditions were so poor that it would have been dangerous to travel.
Normally we would put the couple up in a nearby B and B in the village, a typical chintzy establishment, no doubt with nylon sheets and comprehensive rules and regulations. Anything less American would be hard to imagine, especially the rule that breakfast had to be completed by 9 a.m. This was quite unreasonable for people who had been energetically performing music till late the previous evening, but the stern landlady remained steadfast. She had met her match in Chuck Prophet however, who treated her to his opinions in uncensored language, vowing never to darken her door again. She, in turn, contacted me, assuring me that she would never again put up any rude Americans. In the end I took her some flowers and we called a truce.
I thought I would make up for this by putting the couple in a really nice hotel when they came as a duo to play at my 70th birthday party. Surely nothing could go wrong this time, but it did. Having spent two hours doing a comprehensive soundcheck, just before they went on stage somebody tripped over the lead to the mixing desk and all the settings were lost. To say that they were upset would be an understatement, but as professionals they were of course quite right to be peeved and the show went on with nobody in the audience realising the drama.
When the Mission Express toured with Willy Vlautin as support, they discovered in the morning that their van had developed a serious fault which would make it dangerous to attempt to drive up the motorway to their next gig. This meant that I spent the day with Willy Vlautin, wandering round the environs of an auto repair shop in Fareham, cementing a friendship that has lasted for many years. That was a good result. It also meant that yet again, the next day’s gig was unavoidably cancelled.
We thought we’d be hosting Chuck and band again later this year, but would never have dreamed that he’d fall ill and have to cancel all his dates until recovery. But his doctor said it would be fine for him to play a few shows in Austin while I was there in March with my friend Paul. We decided to take the opportunity to follow the band around for a day – this wasn’t creepy, by the way, just an opportunity to catch some great music. Few artists inspire admiration and loyalty like Chuck, and the air was filled with emotion, a mixture of joy and sympathy. The afternoon show was at Lucy’s Fried Chicken on South Congress. The band members were beaming with nervous happiness and Chuck himself, despite a hint of frailty, was exploding with his usual energy and good humour. During “Wish Me Luck”, tears were flowing round the room but one thing I knew for sure: Chuck would treat his recovery with the same determination as this performance and would be back.
Now things became even more surreal as we scootered to a house concert held in the garden of a multi-millionaire businessman, whose house was named The Castle. Indeed it was a castle, with a full stage in the garden. It felt like a scene out of some Netflix movie, as servants flitted discreetly around, firepits crackled beneath the uplit palm trees and, most worryingly, mysterious men in black suits sat in sinister groups, speaking an unidentified language. This was a rare outing for the Mission Express cabaret set (no You Did, but a sublime Summertime Thing), which was performed with good humour to an audience of largely disinterested non-music lovers. What an extraordinary experience.
Their third show of the evening was held down the road at C-Boys. The doorman tried to extract 25 bucks from us, so we went to Saj, the Pakistani owner of the adjacent food truck, who simply opened the side gate and let us in, in exchange for us purchasing some of his excellent falafels. On the minuscule stage, Chuck and the Mission Express, seemingly indefatigible, laid waste to a wild audience, climaxing with a mind-boggling version of “Willie Mays Is Up At Bat” featuring Charlie Sexton on third guitar. Seldom has any musical experience ever felt so intense.
Photo: Paul Dominy