Restless rocker Chuck Prophet brings strings into his ‘Temple Beautiful’
Provocative roots-rock musician Chuck Prophet is a deft songwriter with a reputation for high-energy electric guitar-driven shows. Prophet describes his most recent release, “Temple Beautiful” (Yep Roc, 2012), as an album “made in San Francisco, by San Franciscans about San Francisco.” This weekend, Prophet wraps up a month-long national tour that has included “Strings in the Temple” shows — concerts in which Prophet, his four-piece rock band the Mission Express and a string quartet perform “Temple Beautiful” in its entirety.
Roots-rock, post-punk sensibility… and a string quartet?
Yes. And it works.
“At one point, we were thinking of doing a musical,” says Prophet. “Like with costumes and a real production. Imagine the players decked out as the characters? Pre-steroid era hero Willie Mays, martyr for gay rights… Harvey Milk, Laffing Sal, Jim Jones, Carol Doda, Emperor Norton… and more.
“But you know, that started to look a little daunting. And we didn’t want our grandiosity to turn on us. Again. So we settled for a string section.”
A few tracks on “Temple Beautiful” (the dreamily elegiac “Museum of Broken Hearts,” for example) originally included strings; this show expands that role.
Prophet worked with Brad Jones, who co-produced the album and serves as conductor, to rearrange the music.
“We thought, well, maybe we’ll just re-imagine [the album] with a string section, and just get the rock and roll guitars down, bring the strings up, and… people would be able to hear the songs in a different way.”
Prophet debuted the new arrangements in November 2013 at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall in what was planned as a one-time event. That concert, which was filmed for future release, was a success and Prophet decided to take the show on the road nationally for select dates. This weekend’s concerts in Santa Barbara and Winters, California conclude the tour.
While Prophet hasn’t jumped this far in the strings direction before, he has long been restlessly unafraid of combining genres. The resulting alloys — jangly swamp pop? punk-infused blues? — nimbly avoid preciousness. The distinct lack of cloying artifice in Prophet’s previous projects bodes well for adding a string quartet to a rock show and not losing the punch.
In other words, if you think adding strings is bound to turn the music either insipid or pompous: relax. The angles have not all been smoothed; there is more energy, not less.
“Temple Beautiful” has an elusively cinematic feel and more than a whiff of mythology, making it a good candidate for this ambitious rearrangement.
Prophet’s paean to San Francisco is neither artificially rosy nor burdened with obviousness. And nary a “flower power” is to be found. Instead of invoking 1967’s Summer of Love, Prophet and his co-writer klipschutz included multiple allusions to two dystopian tragedies that gripped The City in November 1978: the City Hall murders of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former Supervisor Dan White, and the mass suicides and murders in Jonestown, Guyana of members of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple (which had maintained a significant presence in The City even after relocating the previous year).
Throw in fratricide amongst pornography pioneers Jim and Artie Mitchell and an AIDS clinic as song topics, and on the face of it this sounds like it’d be a pretty damn dreary record.
But “Temple Beautiful” is anything but gloomy. The album has a gritty vibrancy and is peopled with eccentrically heroic and adamantly complex characters.
And while the title track draws its name from a long-defunct rock club Prophet frequented in the 1980s, “Temple Beautiful” could just as easily refer to the most eccentric, heroic, complex and vibrant character of the album’s full cast: The City and County of San Francisco.
For more information, visit chuckprophet.com and the venues’ websites.
Concluding dates of Chuck Prophet’s US “Strings in the Temple” tour:
Saturday June 28: The Lobero Theatre, Santa Barbara, CA, 8 p.m., $30
Sunday June 29: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA, 7:30 p.m., $20