“Everyone agrees on the Stones; if you don’t then maybe music’s not for you.”
“Great songs; muy primitivo!”
Chuck Prophet, Barcelona, 2019
The first inkling of this enterprise came last spring. A flyer posted on social media. adapting the Some Girls cover with Chuck Prophet and Charlie Sexton’s faces transposed on a couple of the women from the wig catalogue. It was funny and exciting; the prospect of a pre-Christmas weekend in Barcelona with two exceptional guitarists let loose on the last indisputably-classic Rolling Stones album.
Sexton the Texan 80s wunderkind who debuted at Austin’s Continental Club at ten, played with Keef and Ronnie at fifteen, with Bowie soon after, now a long-term Dylan sideman and the one player who’s left and returned to Bob’s band, twice. Prophet, former Green On Red guitarist, bard of San Francisco, torch-bearer for the Flamin’ Groovies – he calls ‘Shake Some Action’ our national anthem – and recent producer of The Rubinoos. The combination surely guaranteed fireworks. It did and they delivered in spades, but only after a false start saw the original dates put back a month.
Razzmatazz in Barcelona is in an old industrial district. You reach their No.2 room up a set of metal stairs. A stark dark room surrounded by black walls and curtains with a stage at one end. It reminded me a touch of the old Bristol Exhibition Centre. Absolutely perfect for rock’n’roll; a good crowd buzzing with anticipation; they know who they’ve come to see and what they’re going to hear.
It begins with drummer Vincente Rodriguez alone, then Charlie steps out from stage right and we’re on our way, Chuck appears from the other side with bassist Steve Adams. Charlie’s on the mic and into the song; it’s ‘Let It Rock’ and it’s 1978 and Fort Worth. The joyride has begun and the elation is palpable, faces around open up and people are transported. As suddenly as the song begun it’s over. Turning to your neighbours there’s simply that ‘wow!’; the recognition this is going to be just as good as you hoped in your wildest dreams.
Two leads and a rhythm section, working their way through the whole of Some Girls but as though they’ve stripped each songs down to the riff and then built them up again. Someone asked who was Keef and who was Ronnie but they simply didn’t play it that way. Each was each, and then at different times each was Mick too; in the absence of catwalk Charlie simply leapt into the crowd. ‘Just My Imagination’ shone because they played it as just another song rather than a Motown classic. Both ‘Beast Of Burden’ and ‘Miss You’ stretched out to allow extended guitar exchanges. Primal versions of ‘Brown Sugar’. ‘Star Star’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ followed, with ‘Love In Vain’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ tantalizingly on the setlist but unplayed.
Talking to the pair the following morning before they headed out to Zaragoza it turned out the tour was a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Spanish promoters Houston Party. Some years previously they’d toured Chuck and Chris von Sneidern performing London Calling and they asked Chuck for something similar:
CP: “Houston Party reached out and I couldn’t think of what to do; I didn’t want it to be work. I think the night before I’d been at The Continental Club, and Charlie had sat in with us; Petty had just died, and we played ‘American Girl’ off the cuff. I’m like, if it was Some Girls we’d only have to play A and D as far as chord changes, so if Charlie wants to do it – that would be fun – so I ask and it took him about ten seconds to say yes”.
The line-up was completed with the Mission Express’ regular drummer Vincente Rodriguez, and bassist Steven Adams. Vincente hails from San Antonio, and Chuck met him in Austin. When he later showed up in the Bay Area Chuck offered him the gig. Steven plays with numerous bands in the Bay Area; Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO), Magic In The Other; and is a regular at Terrapin Crossroads.
He met Chuck at the San Francisco 50th Anniversary of the Summer Of Love Festival being the bass player in the house band.
They set to it with the album and the 1978 Fort Worth show:
CP: “Early on I said check out that Fort Worth show as it’s faster. People soaked them in for a while, and that was the bookends of it. We had two and a half days, and this is what we came up with. Dividing up the verses was just organic. I’ll do something, I’ll get two verses in, and get tired of listening to myself.”
CS: “And then once or twice last night I jumped your verses”
CP: “Sometimes it’s just who’s closer to the mic”.
Their admiration for the Stones is everywhere evident:
CP: “It’s inspiring to hear how audacious they were. They always had a confidence that was mind-blowing to me, especially in the shadow of The Beatles”.
CS: “Watching The Ed Sullivan shows, you hear The Beatles and it’s spot on. It’s unbelievable how great they sound. The Stones sound shit by comparison but they don’t care. It’s like a street fight versus a ballet.
CP: “The Stones in 1978 with all that New York City sleaze and Studio 54. It was an education into a world of politics and sex; it’s all in there. I think there was a garbage strike, the city was bankrupt, and that’s the cool part about it as a songwriter, it reminds me that we live in a time now where people can be curious weirdos. They were into Jimmy Reed, they were into Muddy Waters, and when they heard disco it was just ‘yeah we like black music’.”
CS: “That’s the connection. When I met Woody and Keith that year, 1984, there was the age thing but we knew the same records, Elmore James. ”
CP: “It’s inspiring. They made a record where they let you know they knew what time it was. They weren’t afraid to dip their bucket down in there, and be part of pop culture,
The question had to be put. Will this ever be repeated?:
CP: “I promised myself not to fantasise about it until we get to the end. I’ll take Charlie’s pulse; his temperature. We don’t want to go a gig too far. To stand on stage and wonder what’s happened to the magic. At the first gig the adrenalin was right off the charts. From one night to the next there are less collisions, but we’re still likely to fall off the cliff. The thing is not to get too comfortable or too complacent.”
It’s a matter of hope and wondering. Since his return to the States Charlie has been fitting in recording sessions with Terry Allen, and playing select shows on Mike Garson’s A Bowie Celebration Tour, before heading back to Europe with the ‘day job’. Chuck meanwhile hit the road with wife Stephanie Finch for duo shows while continuing to work on his Temple Beautiful theatre production in San Francisco. So keep your fingers crossed but don’t hold your breath.
In case of doubt this show took place on 30th January 2019 and this story was intended for another publication. It’s published now because it’s almost the anniversary and it needed out, and further to mark the announcement of a Chuck Prophet UK tour in May and June.