Preaching with power of punk

It’s raining steady and traffic is snarled.

The devil’s work, obviously.

“Satan’s always trying to keep us from preachin’,” notes Rich Coffee (aka Prophet Greene). “But we persevere.”

It’s a damp, dark Wednesday evening, and two-thirds of garage-blues proselytizers The Swamp Gospel have overcome the elements to spread the good word at the Motor City Cafe, which is bereft of patrons, but not righteousness.

It was in this very room, two years ago in October, that The Swamp Gospel debuted their rock ’n’ roll revival show, which compresses Pentecostal sermonizing, faux strychnine consumption and strands of revved-up roots music into a performance that’s truly beyond compare.

At Swamp Gospel gigs, Coffee dresses like the kind of preacher one might find handling snakes in some backwoods tent, addressing a congregation clad in overalls. But tonight, he’s sporting a John Lee Hooker T-shirt, which is just as apropos.

The group began on a more traditional blues bent with Coffee and his bassist wife, Melanie (Reverend Sister Divine) playing covers of decades-old standards along with drummer Lenny Ribaudo (Brother Lenny).

Since then, though, they’ve further homed in on Ribaudo’s bullish playing and Melanie’s fondness for the fat-free hooks and heightened adrenaline levels of punk and New Wave.

“I tend to like ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ kind of stuff,” she says with a smile. “Indulgence is a sin.”

She also cites chain gang spirituals, the Smithsonian Folkways records, field recordings and vintage country, bluegrass and gospel among the group’s inspirations.

“It’s just exciting finding this early stuff that is at least as raw and raucous as any punk rock band could ever hope to be,” Rich says. “And they’re superpassionate.”

“It’s the authenticity, too,” Melanie adds.

The two are avowed music hounds.

When asked if they’re record collectors, they practically roll their eyes in unison. Rich estimates that they own 3,000 to 4,000 LPs and just as many singles and CDs.

Clearly, these two take their music seriously. But themselves? Not so much.

This is what makes Swamp Gospel gigs so much fun, especially the merch offerings, such as the “Punch Card to Salvation.”

“Come to 13 shows, and you’re guaranteed entry to the Pearly Gates,” Rich says.

Only two people have qualified thus far.

“A lot of people keep losing their cards,” he explains. “They don’t know that it’s their soul that’s at stake here.”

For most of the conversation, he’s spoken in modest tones. But now, his voice rises as he slips into character, the bar table before him becoming his pulpit.

“We have something to offer,” he announces with oratorical relish, “including eternal salvation.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.

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