Think Like A Key 2022
On-stage glory of Texan minstrel’s halcyon days is revealed in all its riveting, and sometimes intimate, detail.
“The music won’t exactly go where you think it’s going to go, but I just want you to know that I know – it’s just as difficult to listen to it as it is to play it, and I thank you”: there’s no coquetry in the way Shawn Phillips addresses his audience during one of the shows which are spread across these three discs – yet what he says isn’t exactly true. It’s not too challenging to fall under the artist’s spell, although it might require some intellectual effort, as might the desire to glance beyond the usual image of an American singer-songwriter as an agitator, rather than a troubadour. Just like Paul Simon he’d gone to England to get drenched in the trade’s tradition – Shawn helped Donovan up the ladder, backed up The Fabs and established liaisons he would use once in the States again; unlike his compatriot, Phillips’ profile wouldn’t get raised high enough to establish him as a household name – at least, until the veteran’s most popular composition was chosen to accompany figure skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
By April 1972, when the first concert presented here took place in Rochester, Phillips had already amassed a solid body of work – “solid” seeming an inappropriate word for his fluid oeuvre – to draw on, but it didn’t matter that on those early albums Shawn was accompanied by an impressive, stellar line-up of kindred spirits, because the 30-year-old remained the same lonely minstrel at heart who needed only his faithful 12-string guitar, and perhaps a couple of friends, to drive a performance towards cathartic finale. However, while beguiling Texan drawl and poetic lines’ phonetic flow enhance the sonority of the Southerner’s voice, such folksy cuts as “Song For Sagittarians” and “Steel Eyes” easily concede their intensity and sparseness to the aurally vulnerable numbers like “Landscape” and “Lovely Lady” – delivered in Dallas one year later – where his supple vocals fathom chthonic depths and scale wuthering heights before soaring, helium-borne, on “We” to revel in joie de vivre. And if Tony Walmsley’s electric strum and Barry De Souza’s steel drums destroy the fragile vibe behind “Schmaltz Waltz” which is signed off with the singer’s usual wish of “Health, Love and Clarity” to his crowd, the blast of thunder and acoustic lace on the epic “Springwind” bring the anxiety out of Phillips’ pipes to be soothed after J. Peter Robinson’s piano runs offer utter grace, as though to contrast the dry, Dylanesque “Coming Down Soft & Easy” whose organ waves are as majestic as Shawn’s upper-register notes.
He can also be hilarious as suggests the laughter-eliciting “Never Did Get Down To Baltimore” that never saw the inside of a studio; sarcastic as outlined in “Spaceman” that the entire ensemble paint in progressive colors, allowing Phillips to elegantly linger on a phrase; and deadly serious as in “Song For Northern Ireland” that marries romanticism to protest, whereas the merry yodels of “Capé Barras” that Shawn co-penned with Robinson expose his grasp of classical idiom. The same goes for his tremulous rendition of “Starbright” and “Breakthrough” in San Antonio, and the heartfelt reading of “Woman” that segues into the hectic “Keep On” and frantically funky “Sleepwalker” with a new bout of skin-hitting acrobatics from De Souza – both gigs staged in October 1973 within a couple of days between them. But “Technotronic Lad” delivered there is as down-to-earth as “All The Kings And Castles” is celestial – befitting the American’s bard approach – as opposed to “Victoria Emmanuele” and “Not Quite Nonsense” with their barrelhouse jive that’s propelled by John Gustafson‘s bass, the players’ slightly obtrusive, albeit succulent, assault in the angry “Talking In The Garden” stressing Shawn’s talent at shifting the mood all around in front of receptive punters. There’s no surprise, then, in his following the groovy “Anello (Where Are You)” – spiced up by another round of scat and percussion solo – with the gloomy “I Took A Walk” to vehemently project social commentary on scintillating melodic canvas which is given a protracted psychedelic wigout, and no wonder in “Song For Mr. C” turning out blissfully jazzy yet rocking recklessly, almost heading for sonic disaster.
Still, there’s a more dangerous edge to the instrumental title track of “Furthermore” that Phillips unveiled prior to the platter’s release, in January 1974 in Inglewood, to let the public taste its intrepid fusion, Robinson’s synthesizers raging and passing momentum to Gus’ muscular rumble to underscore the antiwar swirl of “January First” and the defiance of “Bright White” which is irresistibly infectious. Somehow, Shawn’s approach would change to a certain extent soon, the third disc in this set fast-forwarding the listener to March 1977 and taking them to Chicago to hear the bare-naked, stripped to voice and guitar, but very robust versions of the familiar tunes – the mesmeric “Moonshine” and the tender “Ballad Of Casey Deiss” – till the baroque-tinctured serenade “Today” alongside the threateningly throbbing loops of “Early Morning Hours” and other fresh material highlight the artist’s recently acquired ethereal melancholy. The aloof elegies will be cast aside for the equally menacing Frippertronics of “Memories For JH” to fill the Illinois air, yet the last time-jump finds Phillips back on his home-turf, entertaining Houston fan-base in December 1978 with the punchy philosophy of “Lookin’ Up Lookin’ Down” – that feel so relevant thanks to their electronica-sprinkled sound – and the then-current pieces from “Transcendence”: the pensive “Take It Easy” and the frisky country ditty “Good Evening Madam” – spurred by “yee-ha” and atmospheric vocalese.
Inviting old friend Joe Ontiveros to join him, Shawn opts for a duo approach to sculpt the nigh on intangible “Lady In Violet” from zephyr, reach for cheers after it’s over, and pass the whiff of the serenely magnificent, flamenco-scented “Implications” that has an alluring aural aroma to the noise-accompanied “Motes Of Dust” which should grow in dynamic and emotional scope to churn a mighty twang and roll this milestone to a cinematic coda. And if the rambunctious licks of “Julia’s Letters” promise to remove it, ivories and effects are applied to a cosmic sweep to form “Maestoso” and prepare aficionados for the vibrant bluegrass lullaby of “Ease Your Mind” – a perfect denouement to this tremendous archival artefact, a portal to Phillips’ soul-morphing world everyone must hurry up and visit.