Written by James Killen
Aug 27, 2013 at 07:00 PM
ImageShawn Phillips has been one step from the famous for most of his life.

He went to school with John Denver (nee Deutchendorf) and Delbert McClinton in Fort Worth. He studied sitar with Ravi Shankar. He roomed and wrote with Donovan, sang back-up vocals for the Beatles on “Lovely Rita Meter Maid”, and had Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Rick Wakeman play on his third album “Contribution”. Peter Robinson and Paul Buckmaster, two of the most famous classically trained arrangers and composers were constantly involved with his album productions. He’s recorded 20 albums and has 5 more anthologies made of his music. His influences range from folk-rock, to jazz, to progressive, to pop and to classical and beyond. His voice could travel 5 octaves from baritone to counter-tenor. He could hold a note firm or with a distinctive vibrato for a seemingly indeterminate amount of time.

I can remember spending hours in my Freshman year at the University of Houston dorms listening to the album, “Furthermore” and letting the music wash over me and the lyrics play in my mind. Shawn says that his writing style is a little different than most folks in that he seldom writes a refrain. Refrains, he says are for the people that weren’t listening the first time. There are three elements to a song, he says; anger, wonder and technique, technique being the method by which the anger and wonder are melded together. He generally starts with the music and then works up lyrics to fit the feelings of the music. Once he starts to write a song, he doesn’t leave the room until he’s finished. “Talking in the Garden” took two weeks of being sequestered before he considered it finished.

Shawn was in Houston last Tuesday night from his current home in South Africa, playing a show at the Duck. He had no band to accompany him and the stage was set up with two acoustic guitars, one electric and a bass. There was also an impressive array of electronics, pedals, buttons and slides. I found myself seated right up front with members of the Shawn Phillips fan club (aka. EMH named after the Phillips classic “Early Morning Hours”.) The music began when Shawn picked up his nylon strung acoustic and slowly began to put his voice through its paces.

By the second song, “We”, Phillips‘ voice was everything that I remembered it to be. He clicked on the reverb for a trippy version of “Moonshine”. On finishing that song, he stopped to share a little of his personal philosophy. One of the most incongruous things about a Phillips show is how he sings like an opera star and then speaks with a down home Texas accent, no different from the gas station attendant that used to say, “Can I check your oil?” It’s endearing to an old East Texas boy, like me.

ImageAfter performing “Calico and Rainbows”, he picked up his electric guitar and unashamedly flipped on a taped backup band track to perform “Circles” as the funk tune that he had originally perceived it as. He said that, “I know there are people out there that would just as soon have me do the whole show with an acoustic and a mike, but if I have to do it every night, I’m going to have fun.”

Social consciousness has always been a part of the Shawn Phillips lyrical presentation and none so much as on “Times of a Madman, Trials of a Thief”. He performed “Motes of Dust” next. It was the first song that he wrote after a boating accident that involved his trademark long hair and a propeller shaft that resulted in brain damage and a several year hiatus in his career. At 70 years old, he still performs with the famous vocal range and sustain of his younger years.

The show continued with an almost religious “Ascend” from his latest CD followed by the world music influenced “Anello (Where Are You?)”. His performance of “Steel Eyes” contrasted periods of silence with soaring vocals and some of the most distinctive whistling I have ever heard to take the place of an instrumental lead. He followed that with “Whaz’ Zat” played over another taped track.

“I Took a Walk” featured multiple layers of tape looping over a drum machine in which we watched him lay down a couple of rhythm tracks and a bass line before taking off with the lyrics and lead guitar parts. That was followed by the epic, “Talking in the Garden”.

Shawn dedicated “Starlight” to IZ Kamakawiwo’ole, a Hawaiian singer famous for his rendition of “Over the Rainbow”. Phillips’ high octave performance had a number of the ladies in the audience giggling giddily, before he kicked in on what was probably his best known tune, “Woman” performed with an electric reverb intro to the moving, ethereal vocals. Shawn wrapped up his show with a song from his latest disc, dedicated to his wife, “Everything That She Gives Me”.

It had been a while since I had treated myself to a Shawn Phillips live show. I had forgotten the pure talent that reportedly had the late promoter, Bill Graham, call Shawn Phillips America’s best kept musical secret. If I get the chance, I’ll be there the next time Shawn makes the trip from across the Atlantic. Until the next show, ya’ll have fun. We do.