The Paisley Underground revival is upon us. The Dream Syndicate, the Rain Parade and the Three O'Clock have all returned this year. Mazzy Star, led by Rain Parade co-founder David Roback, is back with a new single. And the Bangles have been reunited since 2003.
Then there's Chuck Prophet, an antidote to both nostalgia and such pigeonholes. All the term "Paisley Underground" ever really meant in 1982—if it meant anything at all—was, "look, a bunch of post-punk bands who also still like classic rock and folk and psychedelia and songwriting!" And while the LA/Arizona band that Prophet played in, Green on Red, also reunited briefly in 2006, he's been making solo records out of San Francisco for two decades plus, a rich and ragged catalog of music you could summarize by saying, "look, a post-punk kid who also still likes classic rock and folk and psychedelia and songwriting!"... and Memphis soul and glam and cosmic country and whatever else you might call rock 'n' roll.
An equally magnetic singer, songwriter and lead guitarist, the 50-year-old Prophet has been particularly prolific in the past five years, putting out two records under his own name (2009's ¡Let Freedom Ring! and last year's Temple Beautiful), plus one by his bandmate, spouse and ace-in-the-hole Stephanie Finch (2010's Cry Tomorrow). There were also two collaborations with Austin's Alejandro Escovedo—Prophet co-wrote some of last year's Street Songs of Love, and co-wrote and played guitar on all of 2008's Real Animal (that record's quasi-hit, "Always a Friend," is a staple of both mens' set, as well as a song Escovedo has played live with Bruce Springsteen a few times). On top of that, Prophet co-fronted a Clash cover band, the Spanish Bombs (taking the Strummer role) and landed his song "You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)" over the closing credits of an episode of "True Blood."
Like a ballplayer who's not a superstar but makes the lineup every game and still plays on a winter team in Mexico, Prophet never stops working. He does it because the constant action (and variety) make him a better artist and because, well, that's the only way to make a living playing music in this day and age. When they take the stage on Sunday afternoon at the River City Roots Festival, Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express will have played 22 shows in August, including a Thursday-Friday-Saturday swing from Big Sky to Great Falls and back to Bozeman.
You'll still find "(formerly of Green on Red)" next to Prophet's name more than occasionally, which at this point is like saying "(ex-Nirvana)" of the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, or putting "(from the Yardbirds)" on an Eric Clapton poster. It's true, but incomplete. Prophet's own website has the right perspective, listing the Green on Red catalog under "side projects" on the discography page. GoR broke up in 1992; Prophet's second solo album, Balinese Dancer, was released in 1993. At the time, it was actually a little shocking that such a good guitarist was also such an appealing, multi-faceted singer-songwriter and frontman. It's even more shocking that I'm still listening to him in 2013. Undeniable truth: If 90 percent of all musicians only ever made three records, we'd be missing out on nothing. But Prophet's last two records, No. 9 and No. 10 respectively, may well be the best of his career, which, after 30 years, including 20 solo, is a rare thing to achieve, and something you can't even say about Springsteen or Bob Dylan.
And comparing Prophet to Springsteen feels increasingly appropriate. He covered "For You" while touring behind ¡Let Freedom Ring!, which the Village Voice called "a Born in the USA for our time," and his tastes are similarly ecumenical, if more punk rock (read: better). But what really stands out is the sense of showmanship. Earlier this month in Philadelphia, Prophet sprinkled "Willie Mays Is Up At Bat" with an entertaining mid-song yammer about the inferiority of soccer (and cricket) to baseball.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't have to explain to you what's going on right about now ... We play this song in [the United Kingdom] and they don't know what's going on! ... In [soccer], it's a lot like our Giants, there's a good chance that you can watch an entire game and neither team will score a point!"
It's as kitschy a verbal riff as Bruce's storytelling, sans the teleprompter, but almost certainly repeated other nights. It then explodes into a Thin Lizzyesque guitar duel (if you don't mind Internet spoilers, you can listen to it and the whole show, which also features an especially raging "Cortez the Killer"-style "You Did" at archive.org). And this carnival barker persona is nothing new. "Ladies and gentlemen, step right this way," Prophet sang way back on his debut album, 1990's Brother Aldo. You still should.
Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express play the River City Roots Festival in downtown Missoula Sun., Aug. 25, 3:30 to 5 PM. Free. See our calendar spotlight this week or go to rivercityrootsfestival.com for more info.