LIVE: Chuck Prophet / Sarah Borges @ Club Helsinki, 10/23/15

Review by Fred Rudofsky

Armed with acoustic guitars, a trove of original songs, and enough charismatic banter to light a city block, Chuck Prophet and his special guest Sarah Borges played memorable solo sets on a recent Friday night at Club Helsinki in Hudson.

For a decade, Borges has been one of the most versatile singers on the scene, from her days of fronting the roots-rockin’ Broken Singles to co-leading a gritty, funky Muscle Shoals revue with Amy Black that touched down at Caffe Lena in August. She is blessed with one of the quickest wits, too, offering a warning to the audience: “I never wear pants to play a show. I hope it goes well!” (Typically, she wears a dress and cowboy boots but this time opted for jeans and casual ankle boots). During her 45-minute set, Borges took aim at Chase Utley and his malicious slide in the playoffs, praised the talents of Eric Ambel (the producer of her upcoming album) and offered the best way to handle a Midwestern heckler (“My job is better than yours!”).

Borges played a set that spanned her career, opening with the just-released iTunes single “Caught by the Rain.” Played on a borrowed guitar which was capoed halfway up the neck, the song’s strong vocal conveyed a defiant resolution to begin life anew. “Old 45s” and “Daniel Lee,” two fan favorites from the Broken Singles era, brimmed with longing in their half-sung, half-whispered renderings. Equally well-received was a pair from 2013’s Radio Sweetheart, a swaggering “Girl with a Bow” and wistful “Big Bright Sun.” “The Day We Met,” introduced as the “only happy song of the evening,” showed off the rhythmic prowess of Borges, who smiled throughout the performance like someone who had indeed experienced love at first sight.

The audience, a genuine bunch of listeners, roared with laughter when Borges quipped, “I can hear you eating!” before an NRBQ-flavored original, “The Waiting and the Worry.” “Tendency to Riot,” from the upcoming album Good and Dirty, captured the initial fun and subsequent introspection that drinking heavily on a Wednesday can do to one’s psyche in the wake of a break-up. “Let’s all be depressed!” cracked Borges before a thrilling take of “Symphony,” a gem from 2009’s The Stars Are Out that summoned up the ghost of Nick Drake in its sparse guitar work and deep-from-the-dark-night-of-the-soul vocal. “On the Corner,” a tale that may or not be about hookers, garnered massive applause. Look for a return date from Borges – with the Broken Singles in tow – this winter at Club Helsinki.

Chuck Prophet took the stage to two microphones (more on that later). With a repertoire as deep as any songwriter this side of Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, the San Francisco native greeted the audience in sly fashion, acknowledging that he had left his stellar band, the Mission Express, at home: “I want to invite you to my poetry reading tonight.”

Uptempo and optimistic, “I Call Your Name” revealed how the two microphones would be utilized throughout the evening; one served as the dry, direct vocal, the other as a shimmery, otherworldly channel for the lyrical asides and chorus. “Across the Sea” from 2002’s No Other Love was haunting and tender: “Here comes that girl of mine/ Like a storm across the sea.” A gifted raconteur, Prophet told a hilarious account of recording 2009’s ¡Let Freedom Ring! in Mexico City at a “state of the art recording studio – from the FDR administration” amidst multiple power outages, swine flu threats in the air and earthquakes. The title cut from that album, appropriately, mixed images of light and darkness to surreal grandeur, and segued perfectly into “Doubter Out of Jesus/ All Over You.”

Proud of his Bay area roots, Prophet prefaced “The Left Hand and the Right Hand”, a tale about the rise and fall of the infamous Mitchell brothers, with recollections of 1970s San Franciscan politics and a dedication to brothers who have had their share of acrimony, like Phil and Don Everly and Ray and Dave Davies. The self-referential “Wish Me Luck,” even without his band, was wry (“My life is an experiment/That doesn’t prove a thing”) and rousing (“So wish me luck/ Even if you don’t mean it”).

Another song from 2014’s Night Surfer, “Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa and Remy),” which juxtaposed a Catholic upbringing with a love of true crime stories, was dedicated to the notorious Amanda Knox (“She did something,” observed Prophet). “Diamond Jim,” a deep cut from 1999’s The Hurting Business, got a playful guitar and foot tapping introduction before dipping into a skewed world in which “the neophyte lays down the law” and “Dick Clark’s got the tombstone blues.”

The songs never let up, and the crowd was loving every minute of it. “Ford Econoline,” which exalted the vehicle of choice for ’80s touring bands like Prophet’s beloved Green on Red, roared like a Woody Guthrie anthem, while “Museum of Broken Hearts” would have appealed to the late Johnny Cash with its stark imagery of those living on the margins. “My favorite singer is Stephanie Finch [Prophet’s wife], so I guess I will have play both parts on this song like a Shakespearian actor,” remarked Prophet before a lively solo take on the duet “Little Girl, Little Boy” that made clever use of the two microphones and showed off some Mickey Baker-inspired guitar licks. Dedicated to “all the ladies here tonight,” “I Bow Down to Every Woman I See” was a crowd-pleaser, as was the infectious sing-along hit from 2002, “Summertime Thing,” which Prophet prefaced as “When I had a song on the radio, and the D.C. sniper was in the news.”

Like a surfer who thinks he has cornered the ultimate wave, Prophet introduced “Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)” as his latest single – “supposedly” – and deviated into a hilarious story of being cheated out of the MTV Music Awards despite the song’s terse guitar hooks and the video’s edgy look. “Sister Lost Soul”, a co-write with Alejandro Escovedo, was a perfect pop song, one that easily compares to the best of Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin and Richard Thompson.

“Are you ready to sing?” Prophet asked before “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat”, an ode to the “greatest center-fielder of all-time.” The audience complied each time that uproarious chorus came around, making S.F. Giants fan Prophet beam like a kid who had scored dugout seats to game seven of the World Series.

The two-song encore didn’t disappoint either. Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric joined Prophet for a spirited take of the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day”; the audience eagerly joined Prophet for a wonderfully trippy “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)” that showed off a bit of an R.L. Burnside feel in the echoed vocal and bluesy turn-arounds.

I Call Your Name
Storm Across the Sea
Let Freedom Ring
Doubter Out of Jesus/ All Over You
Yhe Left Hand and the Right Hand
Wish Me Luck
Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa and Remy)
Diamond Jim
Ford Econoline
Museum of Broken Hearts
Little Girl, Little Boy
I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See
Summertime Thing
Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold)
Sister Lost Soul
Willie Mays Is Up at Bat
Till the End of the Day (the Kinks) (with Amy Rigby and Wreckless Eric)
You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)

Caught by the Rain
Old 45s
Daniel Lee
Girl with a Bow
Big Bright Sun
The Day We Met
Waiting and the Worry
Tendency to Riot
On the Corner

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