PINECREST, Calif. — As afternoon light dapples through the evergreens, Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express launch into an 18-song, two-hour set. The venue is a poolside stage at Bear Music Festival, a unique family-friendly mashup of summer camp, house party and larger (and older) cousins like Coachella. Prophet flashes a wide grin as a kid flips off the diving board and lands a splashy cannonball. He’s referred to his own sound as “California Noir” in the past, but the scene today is relaxed and on the bright side.
The band warms up on a couple of surf-inspired instrumentals, and then gets straight into the stuff that Chuck Prophet is known for: bouncy, mid-tempo pop with catchy hooks that often hint at deeper, darker meanings. He may sound a little like Tom Petty, but he writes like Elvis Costello. The title track from his latest release, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, is a case in point.
The sound seems tailor-made for a pool party. Prophet lays down vintage guitar sounds through swimmy reverbs. And he punctuates his performance with little shouts and asides that come through a second microphone rigged to sound like an antique radio. He covers Chuck Berry’s “Ramona Say Yes” without a hint of sarcasm or irony. His reverence for classic rock and roll is evident and sincere.
A couple paddles up and clings to the wall closest to the stage. Some resorts have swim-up bars. This show has a swim-up first row. “Just To See You Smile” (from 2004’s Age of Miracles) and Howard Tate’s “Shoot ‘Em All Down” follow. Based solely on his choice of covers, Chuck Prophet must have a bitchin’ record collection.
Right as the vibe is starting to sag, the band switches gears into an uptempo version of “Bad Year for Rock and Roll.” As if on cue, the sky darkens and threatens to rain. He jokingly asks the crowd, “Hey, where did my synchronized swimmers go?”
The second half is dominated by songs with a deeper groove. Bassist Kevin White anchors “What Makes the Monkey Dance” with a feel that gets the crowd moving and singing along. The band stretches out and works in some extended jams and solos.
“Summertime Thing,” the band’s biggest radio hit from 2002, showcases some inspired guitar work and tradeoffs between Prophet and guitarist James DePrato. Though he’s been a regular on the Bay Area songwriter/producer scene for more than 20 years, it’s easy to forget that Chuck Prophet is also a gifted and confident lead guitarist.
“Willie Mays Is Up At Bat,” an ode to the San Francisco Giants beloved center fielder, closes the show as the rain chases the last swimmers from the water. Chuck Prophet loves California, rain and all, and it shows.