Chuck Prophet turns crises into opportunity on ‘¡Let Freedom Ring!’
Earthquakes, pandemics, brown-outs and antiquated equipment part of the back-story on Prophet’s 2009 release
Chuck Prophet traveled all the way to Mexico City in hopes of channeling its culture and energy for what was to become his critically acclaimed 2009 CD, ¡Let Freedom Ring!.
What he didn’t bargain for was a pandemic, earthquake, and daily brown-outs.
In a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, the former member of Green On Red explained how his adventure across the border ultimately enhanced the recording process, despite the distractions and disasters. “I went down to Mexico City and as soon as I just stepped onto the sidewalk, I could feel the city vibrating under my feet. There’s a lot of bustle there and there’s a lot of energy. I thought if some of that got onto the record, that would be great. Plus, because of the material, I knew I was making a record that was gonna be less arranged, less of a layered affair. It was definitely going to be drums and bass, one guitar in the left speaker , another guitar in the right, and the vocals up in your face, in your nose. And we found a studio that had been totally state-of-the-art around the Eisenhower-era”.
After entering the studio, Prophet and his cohorts soon experienced more than their share of annoyances, distractions and antiquated equipment “Three days after arriving down there we started hearing about the Swine Flu outbreak. Then the electricity would go, typically 7 or 8 times a day. You know how that goes … it’s always in the middle of a totally epic, immortal scene. That essentially made a band out of us. We would have to huddle at the end of each take and say, “Okay man, somebody count us off. We are gonna get it, because we a cutting everything live. It was exciting”.
That excitement seeped into an exuberant album that Prophet describes as “a political record for non-political people”.
¡Let Freedom Ring!‘s most exemplary moment may very well be the sinewy and snarling opening track, “Sonny Liston Blues.” Prophet found in the brooding brawler, a sad and conflicted symbol of the American dream gone sour. “I saw an old film clip of a news conference leading up to his famous fight with Muhammad Ali. Sonny Liston was hated by a lot of people. He couldn’t play the media the way Ali did, obviously. So in the press conference, Ali is holding court, and he’s got them eating out of the palm of his hand. And as the press conference goes on, the reported asked, “Sonny, do you have anything to say? Do you have anything to add?” He puts his hand on the table and gets up. “I’m a man of few words. And I spoke them all today,” he says as he walks away. I just thought, ‘man that’s gonna come in handy some day!’
“Years later I started kicking that song around. When I started getting an idea of what the record was about, I realized that really Sonny Liston is the American dream. With the crash of our economy and people’s nest eggs being sliced. He’s just that — “The American Dream.” He’s part myth and part reality. Nobody knows anything about him. He’s a mythical guy in his way. The more you look at it the more it’s sort of an allusion to what the American dream is all about”.
The loquacious singer-songwriter shares little in common with silent Sonny Liston, except that very few people know about him. Prophet is living out his own, rag-tag, under-the-wire, rocking American dream. After his stint with cult-faves Green on Red, he released nine solo albums, received critical raves (The Village Voice compared ¡Let Freedom Ring! favorably to Born To Run) and collaborated with the likes of Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis. He’s had his own compositions performed by Solomon Burke and Heart, and his songs have charted on both country (“I’m Gone,” a co-write with Kim Richey, on the debut album of country starlet Cyndi Thompson) and AAA radio (“Summertime Thing”). Yet he will not sell out the Iron Horse when he performs tonight.
Prophet is philosophical about his lack of star status. “It’s so odd. I remember when my old band Green on Red had a record that sold like a hundred thousand copies. It was still totally under the radar. A college radio kind of record. I remember somebody saying, ‘Well hey, if that was a book, you would easily be in the top ten of The New York Times best seller list. There’s always some new way of looking at it.”