Tchaikovsky meets Hank Williams.
Growing up around a grandmother who loved Tchaikovsky and a grandfather who dug Hank Williams “Made me a musical schizophrenic,” laughed Shawn Phillips from the Spitz stage. He is making an all too rare appearance here from his native Texas.
Last time I saw him was in a field on the Isle of Wight playing to half a million people in 1970. It took only a brief snatch of his guitar picking combined with a voice that rose to a roar or dropped to a whisper to bring it all flooding back tonight.
Shawn Phillips voice and music was is quite unlike any other Texan I can think of. He has not abandoned folk, country, blues or rock but the definitions are just too narrow to define the ecclectic mass of what he performed tonight. “You will have noticed, he drawled in his broad Texan dialect “The way I aaah sing and the way I ahh taalllk are two entirely different things”. It was a voice that was not only used to convey his poetic imagery but as a second instrument. The range ran from the soft delicacy of a solo flute, which hushed the room, right up to the effect of a completely rampant string section.
Switching between two miked acoustic guitars and a strange Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul double necked hybrid Shawn Phillips combined keyboards and sound pedals in two extraordinary sets of music. There were delicate arpeggios, gorgeous chords and a rivetting scythe through corn crescendo riffs. His right cowboy boot, jet black, heel to toe on the wah wah pedal, his left clicking time like a metronomic drum beat on the stage floor.
Each song was like a minor symphony. Kind of diminuendo and crescendo in blue as Duke Ellington might have said. Unfamiliar with the material I made notes of song titles and pieces of stage chat to give some flavour of the night:
Listening to the CD later I would realise that the vibrant imagery contained in the opening belonged to a song called Landscape. Written about a cab journey in Italy during 1967.
The second song was a love song that never raised itself above the ghost of a whisper with a bequiling whistled solo. After the Texan made play of putting his false tooth back “because yah can’t whistle with yer plastic tooth in . . .”
Free Samples got it’s title from a point in Shawn Phillips life when he was strapped for cash. It was a busking song which came from a period when he couldn’t raise the money on his property. Realising he had the answer right under his fingers he went out to 3rd Street, Santa Monica to busk. When word got out that Shawn Phillips was busking for free people were driving over from Fresno just to hear him perform. One passer by quipped “Free samples?” and copped a dollar which the songwriter duly got back by singing him a song.
The penultimate song of the first set celebrated the country, folk blues that are primers for Texas musicians. The songwriter had several titles for it. “If I Miss You, I’ll Reload” was my favourite. On a stonking chord crashing upbeat Shawn Phillips raised the spirit like a Southern preacher till a black hatted Texan at the back let go an almighty whoop and the rest of the audience let out their collective breath. Wow.
Shawn Phillips laid up his guitars, turned to a small table to play keyboards and effects and ended the set with a song he called The Peace Song.
The break gave the audience an opportunity to chat, buy CDs and T-shirts and grab another drink. We are all at around small candle lit small tables. In front of me are an American couple celebrating their 25th Wedding Anniversary with a trip to England with their children. They last saw Shawn Phillips perform in 1972 in Des Moines, Iowa and lost track of him till tonight. A couple at my table came down drawn by the flyer put out by the Spitz which noted:
“Phillips is considered ‘the best kept secret in the music business’. Shawn has always refused to play the commercial game yet his albums have quietly achieved multi-gold and platinum status in America and overseas. Not to be missed…”
For some of us Shawn Philllips had just simply disappeared, down below our horizon but it seems he’s been making music all the while which he believes:
” …to be timeless, fadeless, integral and meaningful compositions, that hopefully will manipulate the only thing that should be manipulated … our hearts!” (sleeve notes to Another Contribution, An Anthology)
The length of the first set would shorten the second. Shawn Phillips picked up the Fender/Gibson hybrid and whipped up the audiences fire again to which the Texan duly delivered another almighty whoop to signal everyone’s approval. A quieter reflective song followed, gloriously underpinned by his trademark arpeggio guitar style.
Shawn Phillips swopped back to his red acoustic Gibson for what would be the penultimate song of the evening. “Did I tell ya I was a volunteer fireman now?” he called to the audience explaining how after his heart bypass operation in 1994 he originally manned the emergency phone. This he highlighted with a marvellous ancedote about a guy who phones up to say: “Thurrs a fire over at Billy Bobs. Whooa fella now where’s Billy Bobs? Next to Billy Joe’s . . .”
“This is a riff I learned off Kool and the Gang,” explained Philips as he wound up the beat and ripped through a song that had a climax that exploded like a train careering off the tracks. The final crashing chords splintering across my head like the back of a chair.
“I’m not going to get up, go over there and then come back when you applaud,” laughed Shawn Phillips, “Nope we’re going to dispense with that ritual . . .”. Fans were calling for requests but the artist declined them all saying “I’ve got one that will do just as well”. He picked up the double knecked Gibson Fender hybrid again and began searching for a series of notes which became instantly recognisable. To those in love with Spanish classical music it is by some guy called Arujunez or something. To those raised on Miles Davis she’s Sketches of Spain.
Shawn Phillips played those long emotive lines on the Fender as slow and uncoiling as Miles had once done. Then he pulled a masterstoke. Shawn Phillips sequed Sketches of Spain into a song he had once sung on a sun basked afternoon at Afton in 1970 before half a million people. Appropriately Jeff Dexter DJ and MC at Afton was in the audience.
The song was called Woman. Shawn Phillips vocal soft, warm, honeyed and sensuous. The eddies of electric guitar spot on. There wasn’t anything that could follow that.
In our increasingly packaged world where computers run radio stations and DJs are on autopilot, its good to know Shawn Phillips is out there as MTV unfriendly as I am. He is still making music that is unrestricted by the rules save his own that he only writes between Midnight and six in the morning.
If anyone had any sense they’d book Shawn Phillips for the Glastonbury festival and have DJ Jeff Dexter back behind the turntables.