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BOLT FROM THE BLUE:

INTERVIEW WITH POWER BLUES GUITARIST,

BRAD WILSON

By Merryl Lentz

 

 

 

Renowned power blues guitarist Brad Wilson gets on the line for this interview. And then, something happens. He doesn’t start talking about the blues. He starts talking about the 80s Sunset Strip heavy metal scene. Eighties? Sunset Strip? Heavy Metal? What?

 

“The 80s on the Sunset Strip was probably one of the most amazing times in the history of Los Angeles,” he raves. “It was an incredible time. It was a time when being really outrageous was the norm. Everything was so over-the-top. There were some wild concerts and wild stage shows. It was like a renaissance. I was lucky to be there.”

 

Brad has since parted ways with spandex days and sequined nights, taking up residence in Visalia, California, a small town a pinecone’s-throw away from Sequoia National Park. And while he may still have some metal clanging around in his heart, it’ll oxidize before it replaces the blues in his soul.

 

After all, the blues were there first. “The first concert I ever saw was Cream, when I was a little kid living in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Brad recalls. “I was in, like, the seventh grade and a friend of mine said, ‘Let’s sneak away and go to Winterland.’ Me and my friend, we were into the Beatles, and we thought, ‘Wow! Cream!’

 

“We got there and pushed our way to the front of the stage, because we were kids, and people let us by. And so I was right in front. There I was, right in front of Eric Clapton, and he’s blowing off “Crossroads” and “Spoonful,” and there was Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. They were right in front of me, and they were just rippin! So I went home, and I told my parents, ‘I need a GUITAR!’ My friend and I got acoustic guitars, and we took lessons on Saturdays, and that’s how it started.”

 

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Brad says that learning the guitar may be one thing, but keeping momentum going is another. “You’ve got to dig deep and find motivation to continue,” he explains. “You’ve got to play the guitar all the time, or else you’ll rust up just like the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” You’re always looking for inspiration, because it’s inspiration that you channel back into your art. Something — a song, a great sports play, a great speech, a great photograph, a great movie — something will trigger inspiration, and it will send you right back to the reason you started.”

 

Sporting a rich, animated, expressive voice, soulful guitar acrobatics, and craftsman-like songwriting, Brad is a seasoned professional, whose contemporary blues songs speak to fans of all musical styles. Traveling with Brad’s is his tack-sharp band, The Rollin’ Blues Thunder.

 

With three albums on the independent Cali Bee Music label (“Power Blues Guitar Live,” “Hands on the Wheel,” “Blues Thunder”), and worldwide hits (“Step by Step,” “Change it Up,” and “The Ballad of John Lee”) under his belt, this string wrangler has shared concert bills with some of music’s premier artists: Cheap Trick, Jeff Beck, Chicago, Marshall Tucker Band, Coco Montoya, .38 Special, Roy Rogers & The Delta Kings, and Sonny Rhodes, among others.

 

One of his proudest moments was a sold-out concert of back-to-back guitarists, where he took the stage with legendary, seven-time Grammy-winning King of Blues guitarist, Buddy Guy. Brad describes music as “a very, very, very physical thing,” and he’s not kidding — he tours hard, performing over 100 shows a year on the West Coast.

 

The appeal of Brad’s music extends beyond recordings and concerts, to movie soundtracks and television shows. His songs have been featured on film director John Carpenter’s “Vampires” and “Ghosts of Mars,” and on the TV show, “The Young & the Restless (CBS). The television show, “Passions” (NBC), has used his material for years. “Live with Regis & Kelly” (ABC) played one of his songs, “House of Love,” a Springsteen-tinged power rocker. “I always try to find new music to play during our show,” says “Regis & Kelly’s” music producer, “and Brad’s music fit the bill.”

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Not surprisingly, great songs and great artists are Brad’s primary source of inspiration. He tips his hat to timeless blues standards on “Power Blues Guitar Live.” “I had gotten a lot of interest from people around the world saying, ‘Brad you’re ‘so studio.’ Will you just put out something raw?’ So I put out a live album called “Power Blues Guitar Live.” It has a whole lot of lead guitar on it. It’s super-instrumental. I did a really good version of ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ [first recorded by Otis Rush in 1956, later covered by Led Zeppelin]. It got a lot of airplay, and people were really excited about it.

 

“I was working with an exceptional bass player, Oscar Huguet, and an exceptional drummer, Kofi Baker [Ginger Baker’s son],” Brad says. “The album is a power trio album. We had some phenomenal gigs, and I’m so glad we recorded it, because I don’t think I’ll ever be able recreate that in my life.”

 

When asked why he wouldn’t be able to replicate exceptional songs with equally exceptional band mates, Brad’s reply is sobering. “Oscar passed away. He was really the main, driving force behind the album. He was a five- or six-string bass player who was like Jack Bruce from Cream. He was this monster bass player who just pushed bass as far as he could. He would just push the songs to a place that allowed me to solo. He was creating such a foundation that it was easy for me to just go out there and play lead. I always knew where I was in the song. He provided this incredible foundation that glued the drummer and the guitar player together.

 

“From a guitar player’s point of view, it’s kind of like a conversation,” Brad continues, “where the drummer and the bass player are constantly throwing riffs at me that are more like musical language. And then I answer with my response to their musical language. Inevitably, the conversation goes on, as an instrumental section of the song, much longer than it normally would, because everyone’s answering, and the song ends up being six minutes of really great riffing.

 

“Some of the people in the audience love to hear instrumental guitar or bass or drums. I was glad I did that album to kind of say, ‘Yeah, I get it.’ I know that playing really great instrumental music is important, and it’s valid, even though I’m a song-oriented guy.”

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Considering himself to be a singer/songwriter, Brad doesn’t write music by simply picking up his electric guitar and shredding at warp speed. Before plugging into an amp, he lets his acoustic guitar do the talking. “If you can’t pick up an acoustic guitar and sing a song, that’s not really my style,” he explains, “as opposed to a Joe Satriani or a Steve Vai, who can write from a riff, power-riff style. There’s something about just being able to take an acoustic guitar….I think that was one of the things that was so fantastic about Led Zeppelin, is that you can just take an acoustic guitar and play the song.

 

“For me, the most difficult part of writing the songs is the lyrics,” he adds. “Music comes first for me, lyrics come second. Sometimes I’ll get a couple of lines that I write down, and I keep them in a notebook. I’ll go looking for them to give me ideas. But you might have a good verse, you might have a good chorus, but it’s the whole song from beginning to end that matters. And that is very, very difficult.”

 

Being a great guitar player requires great influences, and Brad’s got a few of ’em. “Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King captured the blues. For technique, I’d say technique would be Jeff Beck and Gary Moore, a very underrated guitarist. The phrasing of B.B. King, the way he sings, then plays the lick, and Stevie Ray Vaughn does the same thing: he sings, then plays guitar, sings, then plays guitar.

 

“If you just wanted to get into melody, where you’re inside the song, and you’re doing a solo,” he continues, “I would turn to Jeff Beck and Gary Moore. The British guitarists had such an influence on rock guitar. Jeff Beck is probably the greatest. Of course, Jimmy Page would disagree [laughs].”

 

These musicians are an elite aristocracy of artists whose songs have the rare attribute of immortality. Most generations know “Stairway to Heaven.” They know “Light My Fire.” They’re familiar with “Brown Sugar.” Brad aspires to have his songs join their lofty ranks. “I love a hit song,” he says. “Those are the hardest ones to write. It takes a lot of writing to get to that point — a lifetime, really. An artist is lucky to have a song that will transcend decades. Great songs are hard to come by. They endure. Great songs just rule the day.

 

“I wrote a song called, ‘A Riff that will Stand the Test of Time,’ ” he continues. “It’s a synopsis of great blues riffs by Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, and Bo Diddley. It tells the story of how these artists came up with a riff that will stand the test of time. John Lee Hooker has one: ‘Is it the Boogie?’ And Bo Diddley [imitates the sound of a Bo Diddley riff] — that is a very famous riff. These blues musicians, they come up with a riff, and it’s a riff that will stand the test of time.”

 

Before we continue, Brad wants to clarify the true nature of the blues. Apparently, it’s more azure than indigo. “Even though people tend to think blues is about sadness, despair and trouble, I think blues has as lot of celebration, like ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ and ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’ It really comes back to the same thing country music was doing, where people, in their off time from a very hard life, were getting together and singing about their day-to-day experiences, and celebrating, in their spare time, the fact that they had managed to get paid and get through the week.”

 

The conversation turns to attainment of the perfect tone, a search akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. It seems to be in a dead heat with nailing the perfect riff. “The ‘tone quest,’ as they call it, is a lifelong thing. The tone is what inspires you to dig deep, and play more than you normally would. If you’re inspired by the tone, you’re going to play the very best. It’s always a struggle to get that tone, no matter where you are, because the room, the rental equipment [at the gig] can be funky.

 

“I start with my guitars — my Les Paul and my Stratocaster — the pickups on them are very individual to my sound. I use Mesa Boogie cabinets and a 50-watt Mesa Boogie tube amplifier called a Rectoverb.

 

Brad explains that there is an evolution in guitar amplification, a shift to software that will control tone. “I’m currently involved with using Paul Reed Smith software on a Mac laptop for my tone. I’m running the Mac into a Thomas Blug 100-watt amp and out to the cabinets. The tone section of the amplifier is in software. Treble, bass, and tone can all be moved around — it looks like an amplifier on the monitor screen. Using software on my Mac, I can make sure my sound is the same.”

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Brad has another rabbit that he’s pulled out of his digital hat. It’s a pickup attached to his Strat that transforms orchestral string sounds into digital information, stored as a library of sounds. “The future is in guitar software. It’ll sound the same, or better, but there just won’t be any tubes, or speakers, or analogs. What it does, as a writer, you hear these new tones — it triggers creativity. It gives me a whole new palette of colors to paint with.”

 

For Brad Wilson, the main color on that palette will always be true blue.

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 THERE’S A MADNESS TO THEIR METHOD:

INTERVIEW WITH PROPHET OF ST. MADNESS

By Merryl Lentz

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“There was a time in my personal life, in the late 80s, where I was actually seriously contemplating joining the monastery,” states Prophet, founder, lead growler, lyricist, and producer of Phoenix-area metal mainstays, St. Madness. Wait….what?? He of the painted scar laddering his face? He of the demolition-style vocals? Yes. Him. “I loved God with all my heart and soul, and the peaceful prayer life attracted me.”

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At one point, he was even in a church choir that sang for Pope John Paul II when the Pontiff visited in 1987. “Even when I look back on it now, I’m like, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ ” He, however, had other callings. “The thing that stopped me from joining a monastery was that I wanted to be a father. I just couldn’t shake that wanting. The other thing was, I was in love with being a heavy metal entertainer. I couldn’t let that go.

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“To this day, I still pray — a lot — and I still have my faith in God. But I’m an artist, and I can’t subdue that.”

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He isn’t kidding. St. Madness’ new release, “Bloodlustcapades,” on Prophet’s own independent label, Nasty Prick Records, is anything but subdued. It’s a broiling ball of originality, imagination, genre-bending, passion, and power. The album is the latest installment in an imposing, 11-album catalog that dates back to 1994. In the liner notes, Prophet proclaims, “This is more than just a record — it’s an experience!”

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“ ‘Bloodlustcapades’ is my favorite of all the records,” he elaborates. “I had so much fun writing this record and recording it. It’s the most put-together record we’ve ever done. The whole ‘Bloodlustcapades’ record — we bury stuff in the music. We bury stuff in the artwork. They’re all made to interconnect.”

 

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“There was a time in my personal life, in the late 80s, where I was actually seriously contemplating joining the monastery,” states Prophet, founder, lead growler, lyricist, and producer of Phoenix-area metal mainstays, St. Madness. Wait….what?? He of the painted scar laddering his face? He of the demolition-style vocals? Yes. Him. “I loved God with all my heart and soul, and the peaceful prayer life attracted me.”

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At one point, he was even in a church choir that sang for Pope John Paul II when the Pontiff visited in 1987. “Even when I look back on it now, I’m like, ‘Wow, that was amazing!’ ” He, however, had other callings. “The thing that stopped me from joining a monastery was that I wanted to be a father. I just couldn’t shake that wanting. The other thing was, I was in love with being a heavy metal entertainer. I couldn’t let that go.

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“To this day, I still pray — a lot — and I still have my faith in God. But I’m an artist, and I can’t subdue that.”

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He isn’t kidding. St. Madness’ new release, “Bloodlustcapades,” on Prophet’s own independent label, Nasty Prick Records, is anything but subdued. It’s a broiling ball of originality, imagination, genre-bending, passion, and power. The album is the latest installment in an imposing, 11-album catalog that dates back to 1994. In the liner notes, Prophet proclaims, “This is more than just a record — it’s an experience!”

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“ ‘Bloodlustcapades’ is my favorite of all the records,” he elaborates. “I had so much fun writing this record and recording it. It’s the most put-together record we’ve ever done. The whole ‘Bloodlustcapades’ record — we bury stuff in the music. We bury stuff in the artwork. They’re all made to interconnect.”

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St. Madness’ creative process is kept fresh and exciting by the band’s utter refusal to be categorized or labeled. Although sometimes pigeonholed as thrash, St. Madness (Sid Ripster — guitar, Scarlet Rivers — bass, and Big Daddy Sug — skins) displays range and creativity that bounce like superballs in deliciously unpredictable directions. Sure, traditional heavy metal is there, but it’s woven among blues, Southern rock, country, punk — even baroque! — unexpected time signature changes, mid-song stylistic shifts, and slyly winking humor.

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“Thrash is my favorite form of metal, but nobody can put us in a thrash-only category, because every one of our albums has tons of variety in it,” Prophet says. “We have a song called ‘Walk Your Own Path,’ that’s certainly not thrash. That’s more like Southern metal. We have a song on ‘St. Madness’ [the band’s second album] called ‘Barbeque You,’ and it’s very hillbilly. If we write a reggae song and we like it, we’ll put it on a metal album.

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“We don’t care, because we’re on our own label. So we don’t have record executives going, ‘You can’t put that silly hillbilly song on your album — you’re known as a thrash band.’ ”

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The CD kicks off with a surprise that’s out of this world: “When you put the CD in, the first thing you hear is the earth turning,” Prophet discloses. “It’s the literal sound of the planet turning. I swiped it from NASA. They have the sound of the sun, and they have the sound of the inner earth, and the sound of the planet turning. You literally hear the world turning.”

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The title track, with its heavy-duty, military cadence is a tribute to vampires (“Indiscriminate killing/Makes it all the more thrilling/Bloodlustcapades!”). “All my life I’ve loved vampires,” Prophet explains. “I collect vampire movies and vampire action figures, and stuff like that. Throughout St. Madness’ history, we’ve written songs about vampires here and there. There are different kinds of vampires: one is the literal vampire, and the other one is the energy vampire.

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“There’s also ‘The Arrogance of Man,’ which explains how we keep killing each other over and over and over,” he continues. “For what? You’re killing people that are lucky if they live 80 years. It’s not like you’re killing someone who’s going to be here a thousand years and you stopped his thousand-year reign. What I was trying to explain in the song is that, by our arrogance, and by thinking we know so much, we keep making so many mistakes. Humility goes a long way.”

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Heavy power blues and poignant lyrics play off of each other in “Walk Your Own Path,” a song about being true to yourself, that he wrote for his son, Dylan (who has his own band, Emerald Isle). “I wanted to be able to tell him everything that I’d wanted to tell him while he was growing up, and wasn’t able to at the time. ‘Walk Your Own Path’ is from a dad to his son.”

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The album also boasts the jazzy, prog-rock instrumental, “Rigal,” the comical “Made in China,” and “He’s Riding a Harley in Heaven,” about his stepson’s death. It’s a burly stomp, refreshingly devoid of clichéd syrupy sentimentality. “Margie Johnson has been the manager of St. Madness since 1995, and she’s also my lady,” Prophet says. “Margie had two sons, and John, her youngest son, unfortunately passed away July 3, 2016. Losing him stopped our world for at least a couple years.

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“The last time I talked to John, he was living in Detroit,” he continues. “The last thing he said to me was, ‘I just want to get on a bike and ride off.’ John’s father — Marge’s first husband — was a Hell’s Angel, so it was in John’s blood. When he passed away, we were thinking of writing a song in tribute to him. I thought I would take the last thing he said to me, and make a song from that.”

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John’s memory is honored in other ways on the album, as well. “When you put the CD in, you hear a motorcycle pull up. Periodically, throughout the album, you hear a motorcycle either drive by or start up. That symbolizes John riding through the album. He’s listening to it with you. The last song on the album, he rides off to heaven.”

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However, all these songs would never have become reality without Prophet’s burning love for Elvis Presley. Becoming one of the King’s loyal subjects when he was 15, Prophet was inspired to pursue a singing career. St. Madness’ straight-off-the-Sunset-Strip version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” pays homage to the legend and his profound influence on Prophet.

Ir,onically, Prophet’s musical birth began with Elvis’ death. “All these people were distraught over his death,” Prophet recalls. “Every magazine had him on the cover, every newspaper; movies were coming out about him. And then it hit me that this guy was really special. So I started reading magazines about him and books, and before you knew it, my whole bedroom was top-to-bottom Elvis posters.”

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At the time, Prophet also belonged to his school choir. The director invited Prophet to sing “Blue Christmas” in the upcoming Christmas concert, after another student divulged that he sounded like Elvis. The ease with which Prophet assumed that role revealed his destiny as a singer. “Music got in my blood when I first started doing Elvis in high school. And I knew — I knew — ‘I’m gonna do this for the rest of my life.’ The very first time I walked out on that stage, I felt completely comfortable. I felt at home.

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“After the concert, people were asking me for my autograph! At the time, I thought that was bizarre, because I was also a soccer player. My dream was to become a professional soccer player.”

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Apparently, his star was on the rise. Next, the director asked him to cut his hair, suit up like Elvis, and sing more of his songs in the school’s spring concert. “When the spring concert came, I was signing autographs again. Then I started to get laid,” he says, breaking into laughter, “and I thought, ‘Nine years of soccer never got me laid. I think I’ll stick with music!’

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“After a while, people called me Elvis one too many times and it hit me: ‘If you want to be a true artist, you’ve got to do your own music.’ ”

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That light bulb moment illuminated Prophet’s musical path to the formation of St. Madness. “I was in a local band here for a couple years called Blitzen,” he says, “and they ended up firing me because I was too involved with a lady, and my head wasn’t screwed on right.”

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He and his future St. Madness accomplices met in 1993 through ads they’d mutually posted in the Phoenix New Times. “Immediately, I fell in love with the drumming and the guitar playing. I was like, ‘I gotta make music with these guys.’ ”

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Calling themselves Crown Of Thorns, and releasing two albums under that moniker, they discovered that a New Jersey-based Christian rock band had already trademarked the name. So they reinvented themselves as St. Madness, inspired by the title of their second release, 1997’s “The Spiritual Visions of St. Madness.” The band’s songwriting process effortlessly fell into place. “When it clicks between musicians, it’s every bit as powerful and good as it is with a woman,” Prophet describes. “When you take nothing and you create a song that you all love, from all of you just being together, it’s the most amazing thing. It’s beyond money.”

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Those songs are flaunted in a hyper-theatrical stage show, which is, well, madness. “I’ve been in music for 40 years,” he says, “and it was never my intention, for the first half of that, to put on face paint and do a theatrical band. But somewhere along the line, it just kinda happened. I’m really grateful that it did.

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“We’ve had actors that perform with us. We’ve had a lot of pretty ladies dancing with us. Over the years we’ve had seven-foot-tall Grim Reapers onstage, we’ve had monks, we’ve had the devil, we’ve had Jesus’ clone, vampires. We’ve had just about everything [laughs]. We’re carnival people who play heavy metal music.”

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The magnetic power of St. Madness’ pulse-pounding shows and unbridled creativity has snagged them impressive billings with countless rock and roll heavy hitters, including Van Halen, Monster Magnet, Gwar, King Diamond, Merciful Fate, Flotsam and Jetsam, Sacred Reich, Lynch Mob, Fates Warning, Phil Lewis, Six Feet Under, Death, Destruction, Iced Earth, Black Oak Arkansas, The Misfits, and D.R.I.

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Prophet is adamant that, when it comes to a stage show, if bigger is better, then huge is best. “Bigger is better, and metal is big!” he exclaims. “I don’t care if you’re up there in jeans and a t-shirt, like Metallica used to do. I was fully entertained by that — because they were so powerful musically, and they were so into it that you couldn’t help but want to scream, ‘YEAH!’

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“I’m old school, so I believe in full stacks. When you have a full stack there, you’re getting that top-stack sound that’s hitting you in the back. It doesn’t just look more powerful; it actually is more powerful.”

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Prophet stresses that, regardless of production values or songwriting prowess, St. Madness wouldn’t have scaled the rock pile without a willingness to play anywhere, any day, anytime — and on short notice. “In the 80s, you had to be really good to get noticed. If you were going to play the Whisky on the weekend, you had to earn that shit. You had to play weekday shows and draw a lot of people to earn your way into that slot, because earning your way into that slot was saying you just came up a big level.

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“Now, there are very few places that actually have live bands during the week. For the first two years of our band, we headlined Tuesday nights, going on at midnight, Wednesday nights, Thursdays, Mondays. We did that for two solid years in this area. Whenever anybody asked us to play, we said yes. Eventually, we earned our way to headlining every stage around here on the weekends.”

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“Now, there are very few places that actually have live bands during the week. For the first two years of our band, we headlined Tuesday nights, going on at midnight, Wednesday nights, Thursdays, Mondays. We did that for two solid years in this area. Whenever anybody asked us to play, we said yes. Eventually, we earned our way to headlining every stage around here on the weekends.”

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And, on a night when the combined weight of the audience members wouldn’t tip a supermarket scale, Rob Halford’s manager, John Baxter, showed up to have a little chat with Prophet about singing for Black Sabbath. “The whole thing was so surreal,” Prophet recalls. “He goes, ‘I watched your whole show — you move like Ozzy, you kind of resemble Ozzy, and you sound like Ozzy. Do you think you could sing Black Sabbath music?’ I said, ‘Yeah. They’re one of my favorite bands.’

Rob Halford had been singing with Sabbath, but left after a falling-out with Toni Iommi, and Baxter thought Prophet could fill his steel-toed shoes. “That was a Monday night. He said, ‘Call me on Friday, and I’ll let you know where I’m at with setting up the audition.’ I called him on Friday and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened. Literally, Ozzy just agreed to rejoin Black Sabbath, and they’re planning a world tour.’ Nobody saw that coming — including John Baxter.”

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However, Prophet tells this story not as one of defeat, but one of victory. “I was not ready for anything like that, that night. It was a Monday night at the Mason Jar, there was nobody there, and all of a sudden, I’m talking to this guy about Black Sabbath,” he says. “I’m saying this, to point out to any bands out there, when you play a show and there’s only 10 people there, you don’t know who one of those 10 people could be. It happened to me, and it can happen to you.

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“That’s why it’s important to put on the best show you can,” he emphasizes, “whether there’s 10 people or 10,000. Because even those 10 people — at least they cared enough to show up. What if they weren’t there? You wouldn’t even play. If you have 10 people there, at least those 10 people gave a damn enough to want to see what you’ve got.”

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However, keeping St. Madness in those sightlines — and keeping their sound cohesive — for more than two decades has been one of Prophet’s main challenges. “In the 25 years that the band’s been around,” he says, “staying out there has been the biggest obstacle, because in that period, I’ve probably had 20 different band members that have come in and out.

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“So I had to find a way to make the albums all sound like St. Madness, because we had different players. How we did this was, we bought the Mesa guitar rigs we use onstage. If we have a new guitar player auditioning, he has to understand right away that he’s going to play through the Mesas. If he doesn’t want to do that, he can’t be in the band.

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“The upside,” he adds, “is that, by having a number of different people in and out of the band, you get fresh blood, and fresh writing styles, and fresh personalities. So every time it happens, it’s really been for the good.”

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Ultimately, St. Madness writes music and performs it in the name of making people happy — of looking out into the audience and seeing people smiling and having a great time. “My most important mission is that they have fun,” Prophet says emphatically. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not about someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey man, you’re really cool.’ When people have referred to me as a rock star, I say, ‘No, I’m an entertainer.’

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The difference is the fans serve the rock star. The entertainers serve the fans.

“We serve the fans. They don’t serve us.”