Sunday, October 04, 2015

New Americana, Pt. 1: Phil Cook

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.

I was tracking all of this without totally falling down the rabbit hole, finding more satisfaction in Volcano Choir, another Justin Vernon side project. Then came a moment when Phil Cook became a real person to me, rather than just a hyperlinked name on a wide variety of Wikipedia posts. I was in the first flush of infatuation (now a deep and abiding love) with Hiss Golden Messenger's brilliant Lateness Of Dancers, to which Cook contributed mightily. They were performing on WFUV so I dialed up the video and was stunned. There was M.C. Taylor, the principal member of HGM surrounded by musicians who were just so into it that I had to know more. I especially wanted to know who it was helping Taylor produce the hypnotic guitar weave of Southern Grammar and playing the sweet slide on Lucia. That was Phil Cook, as it happened, and his commitment was magnetic.

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 clich├ęd.

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.

It was a joyful show, a coming out party for a real-deal musician and songwriter. He also proved to be as nice a guy as you can imagine, hanging out after lights-up until Rough Trade staff asked us to move along. I did have one purely selfish question for him. "Does all this mean you won't be with Hiss Golden Messenger when they play Baby's All Right in November?" After a minute of calculating his schedule, which fills October with 20 dates in 20 cities in Europe and the UK, he assured me that he would be there. That's going to be quite a night for me and, as of now, will be your next opportunity to get a taste of the Phil Cook magic in New York. Until then, get Southland Mission and have your own private revival meeting.

You might also like:
The Surprising Natalie Prass
Matthew E. White: Seeking Transcendence
No Longer A Big Inner
Repaving The Way To A Fantastic Fall
The Best of 14

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