The Spitz, London UK, July 8, 1998

8 04 2008

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.

Mike Plumbley


The Cactus Cafe, Austin USA, Fri. April 24, 1998

8 04 2008

       The straight-backed wooden chair on the small stage at the Cactus Café was flanked on the left by Shawn’s six guitars resting on two stands. To the right, his portable keyboard, with the Macintosh monitor resting on top, stood propped on wooden crates, too low for Shawn’s knees to fit under. Two microphones were set up in front of the chair: the lower one for the guitar and the higher one for vocals. In front of the mikes: foot pedals, cables, amps and speakers. A curving, red curtain at the back of the stage reached floor-to-ceiling, covering windows that look out onto the West Mall of the University Of Texas campus.

         By the time I had gotten there about 7:25, several Shawn Phillips regulars were already in line. Beverly and Jim Lancelot who had just joined up with EMH on the day the great Earth Day conflagration started were first in line, as usual. Michael Scully and friends were there. The other couple turned out to be Michael Dahlke and his friend Gail, who had driven the 80 miles from San Antonio. The omnipresent and reasonably omniscient Dan Eggleston had brought his thesis on Shawn, and Pat Aranda, from San Marcos was looking through it. Jan Ingram, from Austin, and her friend Beth had been there for the November show.

        Waiting in line is always like a family reunion.

Next came the famous Carolyn Coffey, who is not with EMH yet. I mention her because she’s the one who did the actual surreptitious taping of the Cactus Café Tapes, now available through JW’s EMH Tape Tree. Eventually, Cliff Hale from Midland showed up and Dale Martin from Houston followed. Houston is 3 hours to the east and Midland…well Midland is six hours to the west by car and 12 or 15 hours by bus, depending on whether you’re going to it or coming from it. It was great to connect faces with names I had seen on line for so long.

        The stage was about two feet high. Six feet from Shawn’s chair the curved rows of small round tables were filled with EMHers and their friends, altogether about 17 people. The second row of tables, stage right, was reserved for Tassia and family friends.

        After six numbers from the opener, a fellow named “Blue,” from Austin, Shawn took the stage without introduction. He wore the familiar red shirt, buttoned at the neck, with string tie pulled all the way up. His black leather vest had a large, gold musical note pinned on it. Pager, pocket knife, and keys dangled from his belt.

        From the opening notes of Landscape, we could tell that Shawn’s voice was going to be strong, in-tune, and joyous. I’ve never heard him do Landscape in concert, and he surprised with several older tunes that he hadn’t performed in a while. He had the words to Landscape written on a piece of paper, got one false start (couldn’t read the page), tossed his glasses aside and began again. Sang it beautifully.

        Steel Eyes: remember how Shawn uses the silence between notes so effectively? Even the bartenders were quiet.

         Next Shawn brought Thad Beckman to the stage. It seems that Thad had played with the group that opened for Shawn at the Executive Surf Club in Corpus Christi a couple of months ago, and they hit it off. Thad plays a mean guitar, and has a future of his own in the business.

        They played Free Samples. Had a lot of fun swapping leads, and Shawn really got that left foot stomping the stage. Thad played spirited guitar, running the blues scales, and the crowd was appreciative.

        Shawn pulled out the black Gibson to play one of his early songs: Us We Are and segued into L’ Ballade. Even college-age people in the audience sat entranced. “And I hope she will find a better man…to love him and rejoice” Man! What power in his lyrics and melody.

        Back to his red Gibson for Breakthrough. His falsetto was soaring and strong. Again…words and music that will break your heart!

        Shawn is especially proud of his newest, The Beautiful People. He and Thad juiced it up with what I would have called some down-home pickin’ licks, but Shawn claimed it sounded to him like Rogers & Hammerstein! So, who you gonna believe?

        Dream Queen. Ya’ll would have loved it. Beautiful voice, beautiful melody. His face wears the sincerity of his words. After the song, a man came up to the stage and slapped hands with Shawn in thanks. Shawn told us he had “played that song for my brother.” He later introduced the man as Ed Booth of the Austin Fire Department. Ed had helped Shawn load up his equipment into the Pedernales Volunteer Fire Department van and drive into town for the gig.

        Shawn introduced the next song as “If I miss You, I Think I’ll Just Reload,” and then got that wild look in his eye. He proceeded to sing One Way Ticket.

        While putting up his guitar and setting up the keyboard, Shawn introduced, from the audience, Pat Shaub, a Starflight pilot. Starflight is the Austin emergency rescue helicopter. It seems that this week Shawn had been out with the PVFD putting out a six acre grassfire, when Pat flew over and doused the firefighters with water poured from the helicopter. Shawn loves that firefighting!

        Shawn told us that he’s real excited that “the Peace Song has actually arrived at the World Peace Society, with Deborah Muldow…” He prefaced the song this time by adding some words written by James Tyman. I got down some of it:  

“I am an emissary of light
This moment the world is healed,
and I along with it, and it is so.”

        Then he played the intro, spoke the words about the galaxy and solar system and “the only difference it makes is to themselves,” and sang the song. Looking in the audience, most people had eyes closed, soaking it in. He ended it with:

“It is done.
I am one.
I am an emissary of light,
now and always.”

        During the break, I talked to Ed Booth (Shawn’s APD friend). Claims HE was the one who asked Shawn to start doing some of the older tunes, like Manhole Covered Wagon!

        After the break, and still with Thad Beckman, Shawn played Hey Miss Lonely.

        Manhole Covered Wagon, complete with a very good Bob Dylan impression.

        Discoveries segued into Lady Inviolet. It was a great combination of songs. The themes mesh and the music transitioned as though they were written for each other.

        Casey Diess had an amazing intro, consisting of guitar arpeggios. What a song:

“Bring him no wine from far away vineyards.
Tell him no tales of the canyon’s might.
Just wish him peace and eternal wisdom,
for he has died, and he died in light”

        Moonshine. They really COOKED on this tune. Shawn played the role, singing it like a toothless old street-corner blues singer. Got that left leg stompin’ again. Went right into Big Boss Man, and I’ve never seen Shawn let it ALL hang out vocally like he did on THAT tune tonight.

        Dispensed with walking to the back and just got on to the encore (You know the how he does it.). “Thad and I both wish you Health, Love, and Clarity.”

        Pulled out the double-necked guitar and used that plus the keyboard simultaneously for an extended introduction to SWWFHMITSATAYKILYBBIGTHTL. You all know what this song does to the audience, and you can imagine the looks of awe, rapture, and wonder on EVERYONE’S faces.

        He left the stage, but never made it to the dressing room. Had to stop and shake hands with everyone on the aisle. We were drained. It was 12:15. Said goodbye to all the EMHers and went home. Couldn’t sleep. Came in to the office to write this up. It’s 3:56 a.m., and I’m out.

Leonard Hough

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