Phil Cook, kicking things off with the Guitarheels at Rough Trade last month.
Even if you haven't heard of Phil Cook, chances are you've heard him. If you were seeking more Justin Vernon after having your mind blown by Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago you would have come across DeYarmond Edison, the somewhat somber folk-rock band that included both Vernon and Cook. Then there was Megafaun, the band Phil formed with his brother Brad and drummer Joe Westerlund after DeYarmond broke up. Their sound was on the haunting end of "freak folk," but while accomplished and interesting it could sometimes grow aimless. Google would also give you Gayngs, an indie supergroup with Vernon, Cook, and members of Polica, Doomtree, etc., that produced a sort of slippery art-yacht rock.
So when his new album, Southland Mission, was announced, I was primed. It was being promoted as his first, although he had released some beautiful if studied work a few years ago under the name Phil Cook & His Feat. This felt different from the get-go. For one thing, there was Phil, big as life on the cover, Buddy Holly glasses and all. Here was a guy coming out of the shadows, no longer hiding as either a session musician or band member, or behind his roots-music scholarship.
The first song, Ain't It Sweet, bears this impression out immediately. After some bluesy strumming and a bit of barrel-house piano it busts out into an all-American gospel-inflected boogie, with fiddle, massed vocals, and a delirious slide guitar solo. Yes, it is sweet - very. And when I saw Phil launch his tour at Rough Trade last month he leapt into that solo like a man let out of a cage. I think he literally kicked his heels. It was beautiful to watch and the members of his seven-piece band were having as much fun as he was.
There was actually an eighth member of the band, though it went un-introduced. This was the tube amp Cook uses to get his signature over-driven, fiery guitar sound. He didn't need to wear a Staples Singers t-shirt (though he was) to reveal his debt to Pops Staples, whose trademark shimmer gives deep roots to everyone from John Fogerty, Tony Joe White and Robbie Robertson. But as his high-kicking performance showed time and again, Cook owns his material, bringing his deep knowledge of the American musical tapestry forward though commitment (that word again) and love.
|Phil Cook gets into it at Rough Trade.|
The second cut on Southland Mission is a faithful but richly elaborated version of Charlie Parr's 1922 Blues, a great song in the traditional vein that benefits from Cook's studio skills, ably helped by his brother Brad and a big group of like-minded souls. Great Tide draws on some of Sister Rosetta Tharp's big-chord power, with more slide from Cook. Belong blends fiddle, banjo and mandolin, creating a nice bed for Cook's warm tenor voice. It flirts with a hoe-down but never feels clichéd.Sitting On A Fence Too Long cleverly forms the spine of the nine song album: "Don't want to die here in the middle, sitting on a fence too long." It's a sly stomp that becomes a sing-along (in concert, literally) that makes me want to hear Cook and company cover Black Water by The Doobie Brothers. Lowly Road is pure blues-gospel hypnotism with a neat little screamer of a riff. Addictive stuff. Pops Staples would approve and he would probably also dig the chorus of "If you want to get to Jesus, you gotta walk that lowly road." If this is Christian rock, gimme more.
At Rough Trade we learned that Time To Wake Up is a reverse lullaby for Cook's son Ellis, who apparently has trouble getting up from his nap. Cook had us all singing it, bringing us into the family. Anybody Else is pure warmth, an extremely well-written song that could hold its own with nearly any American 70's classic. Call it Southland Mission's secret weapon if you want - whatever you call it, you will hit repeat. The album ends with Gone, a tight southern rocker that features a star turn from genius bass player Cameron Ralston, known for his work with Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass.
In concert, the bass duties were handled by the incredible Michael Libramento, who I last saw holding down the low end for Natalie Prass. The band, known as the Guitarheels, also included Ryan Gustafson on guitars, who had opened the show as The Dead Tongues. Gustafson can play anything with strings apparently, and has a way with an Appalachian melody, but I liked him best when he let it rip a bit on Cook's songs. Libramento and Gustafson put the level of musicianship at a high level that night and every song achieved liftoff. Surprisingly, the fiddle player was a pick-up, an NYU student who joined the band at sound check and fit right in by the time we got there.
|The Dead Tongues (Ryan Gustafson) with strings at Rough Trade.|
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