by carl wilson

"Nothing Is Small. Nothing Is Unexpected"

Went out to see Sam Phillips tonight at the Lula Lounge, the first time I've ever seen the L.A. songwriter, though I've admired her work since the early nineties with albums such as The Indescribable Wow and Cruel Inventions produced with her (now ex-)husband T-Bone Burnett.

I haven't kept up as well as I'd like, though, missing her recent semi-comeback discs Fan Dance and this year's Boot and a Shoe - an omission I'm set to correct immediately. Based on my hearing tonight, Boot and a Shoe may be one of the best of the year. Yet even in my neglect I was listening to her often, since she provides the musical punctuation for Gilmore Girls, one of my few tv addictions. My favourite of her new songs, If I Could Write, was played during one of the early episodes this season, but I'd forgotten it till tonight. It's at once a perfect pop song and a piercing meditation on marriage, its discontents and dissolutions. Listen:

I took your ring that never comes off
And put it on.
Sorry to lose you, sorry to keep you
After you were gone.
Nothing is small, nothing is unexpected,
But I want more, and when I go this time,
Don't think I'm comin' back.

Desire's the element that I can't fight,
Dream is the arm of God.
Girls looking for themselves in your eyes -
I'm looking for you.
What's it supposed to be, some kind of perfect?
I want more, and when I go this time
Don't think I'm comin' back.

The music ranges from Beatlesy rock (she covered I Want to Be Your Man as an indigo-blue tango) to gypsy jazz, and she shares Tom Waits' and Elvis Costello's Kurt Weill-tinged tastes in arrangements. Yet she's also about the only pop musician I can think of who if I had to describe their work in one word, it would be "patience."

I think this quality of neither rushing nor insisting has something to do with her history: She began her career as popular Christian singer Leslie Phillips, then left behind that scene and her given name in rejecting the arrogance and intolerance of the Christian right, with an album called The Turning. So the sense of questing and unsureness, the rigour and humility of her songwriting is something special. It's helped out by the conversational lilt she uses to such effect in her "la-la-la" GGs interludes, making her songs seem like intimate dialogues with a silent partner, often romantic but often spiritual too.

Tonight she was accompanied by The Section Quartet (which opened with stupid string arrangements of classic rock hits, and I don't mean good stupid, but recovered with their gorgeous backup, especially Eric Gorfain's parts on Stroh violin, an instrumental oddity also prominently featured on Waits' Alice), as well as Patrick Warren on synth and pump organ and, most of all, drummer Jay Belarose, a big guy who moved like a gracefully dancing bear behind a kit that included a huge parade drum in place of a bass drum and an array of other personalized percussion. He played colours more than rhythms, layering them over Phillips' songs like a Monet.

Phillips herself radiates self-possession, a cool distance worn just askew, so that a corner of vulnerability can be seen, enough to ensnare your empathy. She's really one of the most immensely likeable performers I've ever seen, measuring out her songs and her stage chat so judiciously and respectfully, confident of her songs' value but never presuming upon the audience's attention. The show was brief, about an hour, but crafted like a small, well-lit short story. There's a sly cabaret theatricality but not a hint of Broadway anywhere. She fixes the audience in her sights and takes an obvious pleasure in song by song firing her little arrows of honesty and heart break: They're torch songs, she said, "as in torture, or as in carrying a torch, which means you love someone but they don't love you but you still hold out hope. I have travelled all this way to tell you tonight: The hope will kill you."

That's typical of her wit. When she walked on stage, she stood silently for a moment and then said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sam Phillips," which set a tone of tongue-in-cheek formality she kept up whether she was imploring Canada to invade the U.S. if Bush were elected, or asking before the end of the set if the audience would be interested in an encore: "This is Toronto - we don't need to play those silly games with each other."

Suffice it to say I won't be taking Sam Phillips for granted again: A few la-la's on a tv show is decidedly not enough.

Edited to add: This show also had the highest Globe music staff turnout in recent memory. Senior music critic Robert Everett-Green was there with his family (his 10-year-old daughter's a big Sam fan, apparently) as was our blues specialist Brad Wheeler. Robert's review of the show came out Tuesday.

Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Monday, October 18 at 1:31 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)

 

COMMENTS

Thank you so much. I was exactly looking for a song that played at a Gilmore Girls episode, and not only could I find out here which song it was, but also download it. Sharing is the purpose of the internet, so may we always be able to do it... freely! :-)

Posted by Patricia on November 6, 2004 2:05 PM

 

 

So jealous I missed that. I love Sam Phillips. Criminally underappreciated.

Posted by Owen on October 24, 2004 9:00 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson