Glen Phillips excels in preview
By JOSEF WOODARD
In the moving and SRO double header at SOhO on Wednesday night, there were some detectable thematic and stylistic links between the headliner, Glen Phillips, and his opener, Susie Suh. Both are literate singer-songwriters who have found personalized paths through the maze of folk and pop, and who know how to deliver melancholic songs that warm the heart rather than sink the spirits.
On another front, there is also a connection in that both artists are expecting March babies, CD release-wise (if record label release schedules can be trusted). The major difference has to do with age and layers of experience. The gifted young Suh will be making her official debut, with a beautiful album on Epic Records. Phillips — probably the finest pop artist ever to come out of Santa Barbara — will at long last make his major label emergence as a solo artist. This will be his first album for the respected Lost Highway label, where his labelmates include Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello.
Overall, the SOhO show had a warm and sentimental nature, enhanced by the generous presence of Phillips’ family and friends and the fact that it was his birthday. He’s 34 and counting, and still with boyish good looks. It also helped that SOhO’s Gail Hansen introduced the show with a welcome disclaimer, inviting the audience to keep chatter to less than a minimum. It should be house policy, at least for soft, serious music.
Suh’s short set whet the appetite to hear her in a fuller show, perhaps in a “Sings Like Hell” Lobero Theatre context, for instance. Starting at piano but mostly playing guitar, the Los Angeles-born and -based Suh sang with her uniquely soft, deep and slightly dark-toned approach. On boldly-written songs such as “Your Battlefield,” about parental tensions, and the warm waltz “Harmony,” Suh presented a beguiling mixture of strength and fragility, to hypnotic ends.
Phillips, for anyone who has been hiding under rocks or a pseudonymous existence in the backwoods, zoomed into the realm of pop stardom with the band he joined in high school, Toad the Wet Sprocket. They called it quits in 1998, reuniting briefly two years ago in a soggy effort to crank up the old machine. Subsequently, Phillips has mainly been working on his skills as a solo artist, as a singer-songwriter and guitarist, and the work has obviously paid off. His show at SOhO found him to be an increasingly self-reliant and nuanced solo troubadour, the elements of his guitar playing, singing and overall performance ease coming together in an evermore unified package.
In 2001, Phillips released the fine and unjustly overlooked solo album “Abulum” on a tiny, now defunct label. He dipped generously into that song set, more narrative and anecdotal than his Toad songbook, performing the hooky, cheeky “Fred Meyers,” “Drive By” and “Train Wreck,” with its cool, slithering bridge section.
Phillips’ activist and globally-aware human side is never far from the surface of his work. He announced that he was turning Wednesday’s show into a benefit for tsunami victims, via the widely respected and locally based charity organization Direct Relief International, and encouraged the audience to donate further. In other kindly rants, he praised the progressive “blue state” virtues of Costco, as big box outlets go, and let Randy Newman’s creepily-relevant old tune “Political Science” do its own bidding. Don Henley has also helped revive Newman’s satirical classic.
Wednesday’s show also dipped naturally into the Toad songbook (which is mostly Phillips’ early songbook), including their most artful single, “Walk on the Ocean,” a strangely mature-sounding song for someone barely in his 20s at the time of its writing. Other Toad-era jewels included Phillips’ ode to country singer heroines, “Nanci,” the chunky rocking charmer “Brother” and the lilting “Windmills.”
For encores, Phillips played the chugging rocker “Green Zoller,” summoning a band-like energy without a band, and then navigated the trippy melodic slalom of the mesmerizing Bjork song “Hyper-ballad.”
Closing the evening on a hymn-like note, Phillips sang the old Toad tune “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted,” a Zen-like anthem of gratitude and acceptance. The song closed Toad’s best-selling 1991 album, “Fear,” and sounds even better all these years later and in the pure glow of a solo setting.
Phillips will return to the larger stage of the Lobero Theatre on Jan. 15 for an appearance in the “Sings Like Hell” series. He’ll bring along several artists connected with the infamous club Largo in Los Angeles, a regular haunt and artistic proving ground for Phillips over the last several years. He recently released a CD, “Live from Largo.”
Hearing Phillips in his relaxed, flowing glory at SOhO, a thought naturally pops into the collective head: A star is reborn.