From Austin to outer space: Kelly Willis and Chuck Prophet expand Sings Like Hell’s horizons

Feb 7, 2008Reviews, Series 22

Santa Barbara News-Press
Ted Mills

Country singer Kelly Wills, center, was joined on a few songs by Chuck Profit and his guitar at Saturday night’s Sings Like Hell concert at Lobero Theatre. The Sings Like Hell concert series is slowly turning up the heat with its twofer lineups. With country singer Kelly Willis, we got a rock-solid set of sad tunes. And her small band didn’t prepare us for Chuck Prophet’s smoking hot pop-rock, which sent us out with our hair singed from Saturday night’s concert at Lobero Theatre. Ms. Willis is rightfully punchy at this time in her life. She burst out of the gate in the late 1980s with an MCA recording contract, but she failed to get the sales she deserved. Many labels, a successful marriage and four children later, Ms. Willis now looks back on her early career as “several lifetimes ago.” But those experiences make her good-love-gone-bad tales reverberate now more than ever. One song, she noted, was co-written by both her ex-boyfriend and her current husband (she said both had left her at some point) — that kind of convolution “qualifies me as a country singer,” she laughed. Ms. Willis’ guitar playing remained simple, but she was backed by two fine musicians — a steady bass player and an amazing lead guitarist who did some fine string-bending on just an acoustic, often sounding like Richard Thompson. Highlights included a smart cover of the Cannonballs’ “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” with lyrics as good as the title sounds, and Jules Shear’s warm and poppy “The More That I’m Around You.” Ms. Willis also played songs written for her by husband Bruce Robison, including “Wrapped” and “Not Forgotten You,” both feeling like intimate glimpses into the couple’s home life. With Chuck Prophet waiting in the wings, Ms. Willis brought him and drummer Todd Roper out to play a few songs, including the rockabilly tune “Teddy Boys” and the aching “Too Much to Lose,” for which Mr. Prophet played a sweltering solo. Mr. Prophet produced and co-wrote many of the songs on Ms. Willis’ latest, but his own material only briefly checks in with the tropes of country music. Slide guitar might ring out, but, swathed in echo, the sound feels more psychedelic than anything. In the ’80s, Mr. Prophet was part of the fondly remembered alt-country group Green on Red, and he has since continued to make music that drops hints of Lou Reed, ’80s-era Americana and a strange dash of Tom Robinson. In short, Mr. Prophet writes intelligent songs that would be chart hits in a just world. “Small Town Girl,” the second song of his set, explained this musical gumbo — a funky bassline set against the syncopated rhythms of drummer Mr. Roper, and jazz chords in the chorus over which keyboardist and vocalist Stephanie Finch offered counterpoint. On “Soap and Water,” Mr. Prophet’s latest album, the song is intimate. At the Lobero, the band took it to an epic status. The same was done with his two hypnotic numbers, “A Woman’s Voice” and the not-too-silly “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp).” Both rose and fell on increasing spaciness and ace guitar work from Mr. Prophet and his band members. Yet the band seemed to know exactly when to rein themselves in and let the words do the work, as they did on “Let’s Do Something Stupid.” Mr. Prophet’s band is so good, in fact, a live album from this tour would be a welcome addition to their discography. e-mail: