It’s always great to be the hometown hero. But since he flew solo from his old outfit, Green on Red, 19 years ago, San Francisco folk-blues growler Chuck Prophet has settled for another distinct honor: being huge everywhere else instead.
The guitarist, 45, has built a marquee-topping name for himself overseas, and until recently his work was always released exclusively on British and European labels.
Stateside tours? “I don’t think it’s ever gotten as sad as [the poorly-attended shows in] that Anvil movie,” he says over lunch at his favorite Castro-district café. “But it gets sad pretty fast.”
For example, Prophet — who plays The City Sunday, backing his new Mexico-City-recorded “Let Freedom Ring!” on U.S. imprint YepRoc — cites one show in Chapel Hill, where he was told he could play for the door take. “So we did the gig, everybody had a good time, and at the end of the night I went to the doorman, who shrugged and said, ‘Oh, we didn’t do much business tonight,’” he says. “And I’m looking around, and the place is full, but he goes ‘Sorry — those are just the regulars.’ We’ve had a lot of gigs like that in the States.”
This puzzles Prophet. “It’s a bummer for me to think that people would get what I do more overseas than here, because that is not how I designed it,” he says.
“Freedom,” his 11th CD, is easily accessible.
In memorable tracks like “Barely Exist,” “Hot Talk” and the sardonic “American Man,” Prophet proffers a warm, Jimmie Vaughn-beefy guitar style and gruff vocals that have always fallen somewhere between Tom Waits and Elliott Murphy. It’s the blues, not brain surgery.
Naturally, Prophet follows the work — and the respect. Green on Red was recently invited to reunite for Britain’s annual All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, to perform the 1985 classic “Gas Food Lodging” in its entirety.
“In England, we’ve found a core audience that’s stayed with us through some records that took left turns,” says the singer, who usually tours and records with his keyboardist wife Stephanie Finch.
Yanks are finally catching on. New West signed Prophet for two U.S. albums in 2002, and he scored a chart hit with “Summertime Thing.” His songs have also found their way into TV in “True Blood,” “The L Word” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
“After being on all these British labels, North America became this thing that I figured would just go away if I ignored it long enough,” Prophet says. “But of course, it never did.”